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The Story Of Religious Controversy
by Joseph McCabe
The Evolution of Christian Doctrine
The Religion of Jesus
THE primary educational need of America is to persuade believers to examine candidly the bases of their belief. The amiable counsel which statesmen give, to abandon strife and cooperate in enjoying the movies, is like a medieval recipe for a tumor, while the complaints of priests against the stirrers of sectarian conflict are prompted by a desire to keep their flocks in ignorance and pursue their secret activities unperceived. Far more healthful is the open battle. But the first condition of it is to enable the Fundamentalist to conduct it without rancor, bitterness or fierceness; because the really fundamental issue is whether what he takes to be the Word of God is the Word of God.
He would have us return to “the religion of Jesus,” and we merely ask that we shall be quite sure that what he offers us is the religion of Jesus. A story is told of a Fundamentalist preacher assuring an agonized mother that the soul of her dead child would burn in bell forever because the boy bad not been baptized. It does not matter whether the story is correct. It represents the actual belief of millions of Fundamentalist Christians. Well, where did Jesus say that? He was himself not baptized until he was thirty; and there is not a word in the Gospels that can be twisted by the most resolute theologian into a statement that a child, or even an adult, will be damned if he leaves the, world unbaptized.
It is an inference, an implication, you say. All men have incurred the general sentence of damnation for Adam’s sin, and the application to each person of Christ’s redemption of the race is through baptism. Where did Christ say that? We have proof positive that the formula of baptism at the end of Matthew was fraudulently added to the Gospel when a priesthood was created; and even in that passage not one word is said about baptism as a condition of salvation.
But let us take a much broader view. The Modernist says that Jesus “saved” men, or helped them to save themselves, by his moral teaching and example. The Fundamentalist, scorning what he calls this modern weakening of the Gospel message, says that Jesus was God, and had taken flesh and died on a cross chiefly to remove the primitive curse from the race. With any Fundamentalist who may hold that men and women of entirely virtuous lives, or who sincerely repented, would nevertheless have been damned forever because of a sin committed some thousands of years ago, if Christ had not died, I should not care to argue. In any case orthodox Christian teaching, Catholic and Protestant, is that a divine victim was sacrificed primarily to avert the general condemnation of the race for Adam’s sin.
Where does Jesus say that? Where does he say that all men are condemned because of Adam’s sin? Where does he say that God alone could atone for it? Where does he say that that is his purpose? Where does he say that he is, not the “son of God,” but God? Let a Fundamentalist go very carefully through the Gospel of Matthew, as I have (for the hundredth time) just done, without a preacher to befog him, without any of his literature. He will realize a strange thing: that it is the Modernist who is nearest to “the word of God.” The Modernist is the real follower of Jesus. The Fundamentalist is a follower of Paul.
This distinction is so marked that one of the most notable theological works of recent times — Dr. Machen, of the Theological School at Princeton, thinks it “epoch-making,” though he does not agree with it — holds simply on a study of the contents of the Gospels and Epistles themselves, that Paul had never heard of Jesus! I do not myself agree with this brilliant writer, Bousset. But the notable point is this: the contrast of the teaching of Paul with the teaching of Jesus is so glaring that a Christian scholar of great distinction and authority can hold that Paul never heard of Jesus. And Fundamentalism is based on Paul.
Let us look for ourselves to the Gospels for the teaching of Jesus; and it will suffice to take Matthew, which is understood to be the most complete record of his words.
His teaching is almost entirely ethical. There are only just a few, incidental phrases that can be called theological. Paul was “the first theologian,” as Harnack says. Jesus believes in God, and says that he must be worshiped in spirit only, not in temples and synagogues, not with the aid of priests or ministers. This God will punish sin with eternal torment — that is to say, personal sins; Jesus never mentions an inherited sin of Adam — and reward virtue with eternal bliss. Jesus believes in devils and angels, which the Jews had taken over from the Babylonians and Persians. He believes that the end of the world is near, and that God will then judge all men for their personal sins.
No one will question that this is a full summary of the religious content of ninety-nine percent of the teaching of Jesus in the Gospel. That alone is significant. if the modern Christian wants to find support in the Gospels for his beliefs, he has to search for short and incidental phrases, the meaning of which is always disputed, and the authenticity generally denied.
And this evidence of the lateness of the teaching that is attributed to Jesus is nowhere clearer than in one of the most famous texts of the New Testament. The writer, obviously a Roman, actually attributes a pun to the ultra-solemn prophet of Nazareth: “Thou art Peter [Rock], and upon this rock I will build my church.” The Roman Catholic stakes his faith on that pun; and, if the Protestant admits that Christ used the words, his answer is worthless. The word is used again in Matthew xviii, 17, where a man who has a quarrel with his neighbor must submit it to “the church.”
Jesus certainly never used the word. Apart from his expectation that the end of the world was at hand, the word had no meaning, as an institution, at that time; except that to a Greek it meant the political assembly or convocation. The Greek word put in the mouth of Jesus is ecclesie. The only Aramaic word corresponding to this meant the general assembly or convocation of the Jewish people. In that sense the word is used by the Greek translators of the Old Testament (Deut. xxxi, 30 and Ps. xxii, 22). It had no meaning whatever as a religious institution until decades after the death of Jesus. In the year 30 A.D. no one on earth would have known what Jesus meant if he had said that he was going to “found” an ecclesie, or church, and that the powers of darkness would not prevail against it, and so on.
The Gospels are late, and there are still later interpolations in them. In the circumstances it must seem strange to everyone that the writers never make Jesus plainly claim that he is God; and I may add that Paul only does this once, in a disputed passage, and that other early Christian writings are just as shy of saying in plain language that Jesus was God.
You may say that it comes to the same thing when Jesus claims to be, or at least admits the title, “the Son of God.” It is so far from being the same thing that, if Jesus had plainly stated that he was God, it would have saved the Church three or four hundred years of bloody strife. “Son of God” meant to the Jews a man dear to God. What they regarded as blasphemy was the supposed claim that Jesus was the, or only, son of God. The English Bible says throughout “The son of God,” but the Greek text of the Bible does not. In most cases the Greek — I have it before me — is simply “son of God,” without an article. And if in other cases we have the full phrase “the Son of God” or “Son of Man,” who will come one day on the clouds to judge all men (the most characteristic belief of the Persians), this is contradicted over and over again by other texts. “Why callest thou me good? There is none good but one, that is God” (Matthew, xix, 17). “Not as I will, but as thou wilt,” Jesus prays to God (Ibid., xxvi, 39) and “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Ibid., xxvii, 46). I could fill a chapter with such texts.
The Gospels are a tissue of contradictions on what the Fundamentalist says is the fundamental point, the divinity of Christ. The Church flamed with controversy about it. Even the experts, who carefully analyze the Gospels into their earlier and later elements, are in hopeless disagreement as to the simple point, which is at the basis of Christianity, whether or not Jesus claimed to be God.
And the second “fundamental” is, as I said, not even obscurely hinted at in the Gospel. Near the end, in one of the most suspected passages, Jesus is made to say that his blood is to be shed “for many, for the remission of sins” (Matthew xxvi, 28). This is so novel, so much at variance with the whole previous teaching of Jesus, that we rightly suspect it. But in any case, it is not a reference to “original sin.” There is not a single word in the Gospel about redemption by atonement as it is taught by both Catholic and Protestant Churches, and is said to have been the essential reason for the incarnation! To see if I am not right, I turn back to the ponderous manual of “Dogmatic Theology” which I used in college decades ago, and it confirms me. Two vague references to sin or sins in John (a worthless witness in any case) are all that can be added to the text I have given. It is Paul, not Jesus or the Gospel writers, who gave the Church the doctrine of the atonement. Jesus was the first Modernist. Paul was the first Fundamentalist.
After nineteen hundred years, during one thousand of which the greater part of the genius of the race was devoted to this work, the most learned theologians of the world are hopelessly disagreed as to what Jesus did, what he said, and what he meant. The cocksureness of each new writer or new school, the confidence in them of their readers, the way in which a simple Christian tells you that “this has been explained,” or “that apparent contradiction has been reconciled,” are merely amusing. There is no other theme in the world on which the “experts” have produced a more voluminous and more contradictory literature than on that which the preacher calls the simple and sublime message of Jesus to man; and the confusion is now far worse than ever. I defy any man to indicate one other point on which the experts have, during the last hundred years, uttered such an infinite medley of contradictions.
When we turn from Jesus’ elementary creed to Paul, it is like passing from some pleasant California valley to the cactus-covered rugged slopes of a Mexican gorge. The two things which even the Gospel writers, at the end of the first century, never put in the mouth of Jesus — the two things which are the real bases of Christianity, since they explain Christ and the incarnation — are precisely the two main themes of Paul. I mean original sin and the atonement for original sin. Theologians often say that the Church turned away from Paul in the second century. What an extraordinary lack of sense of proportion! Paul’s three characteristic doctrines — original sin, divine atonement for original sin, and the need of “grace” — which are not in the Gospels, are the foundations of the sacerdotal fabric that was raised and also of the doctrinal system of later Protestantism.
Why this extraordinary contrast between the Gospels and the Epistles? As I have already said, modern theologians realize it so acutely that the latest fashion is to follow Bousset, in his “Kyrios Christos” (1913), and say that Paul never heard of Jesus, but got his doctrine of “the Lord” and redemption from Greek and Mithraic sources. Dr. Machen in his “Origin of Paul’s Philosophy” (1921) tells us that Bousset is forming a new and important school. Most writers say, however, that the messianic ideas, blended with Greek ideas, of the Jews scattered over the Mediterranean world would supply Paul with every element of his gospel. Others. … In short, every expert differs from every other expert. Machen’s book is only one more proof of the utter uncertainty and transitoriness of every theological theory.
The Mists Of Gnosticism
It seems to me that you must reject the whole of the Epistles if you doubt whether Paul ever heard of Jesus of Nazareth. Even the least disputed of them (Romans, Galatians, and I and II Corinthians) talk of Christ Jesus, who was born of a woman, was crucified to redeem men from sin, and rose from the dead.
Paul at first cried blasphemy, but this story of Jesus would, on reflection, seem increasingly like a realization of his hopes. If only it were true that, as they claimed, this Jesus had risen from the dead! If only he would appear to Paul! Then, in some prolonged fit of brooding and fasting, Paul saw him, as hundreds of other saints have done, and it was all over. Paul accepted the simple religion of Jesus — God the Father, punisher of sin — but it was the death and resurrection that mattered most. Jesus had been simply a preacher. Paul created the redeemer. He thundered to the world that Jesus had lifted the primitive curse, and that his “holy spirit” — one of the commonest of phrases in those days — still lived amongst his followers.
This first statement of Christian theology is — in spite of the thousands of books that have been written about it — fairly simple. Paul never bothered about the precise relations or natures of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There was one God, and this God had assumed flesh in a woman’s womb, then shed it and gone back to heaven. His “spirit” or his “grace” now helped men to avoid personal sins. All that they had to do was to get together in little groups of churches (ecclesiae or “convocations”) to practice virtue, to hold the commemoration supper, and to await the coming of the kingdom. There was now no need for circumcision, sacrifices or synagogues.
The Epistles, we are told, were written as if Jesus did not exist. I should say, rather, that the Gospels were written as if Paul did not exist.
We shall probably never recover the true history of the beginning of Christianity, but in the Epistles and Acts we have a red glow here and there of conflict. Well did Jesus say that he came to bring into the world, not peace, but a sword. There were at once a dozen struggles: Peter or Paul, faith or good works, resurrection or no resurrection, obligation to the Jewish law or freedom. Christ had forgotten to leave instructions. His Church settled these dozen fiery controversies only to find itself locked in a terrific and protracted fight with Gnosticism. It emerged from that to confront Montanism, and Novatianism, and Ebionitism. After these came Patripassianism, Adoptionism, Modalism, Sabellianism, and Arianism. The fierce passions and bloodshed of these struggles had hardly ceased when Nestorius and Eutychius, Helvidius and Jovinian, Donatus and Pelagius raised the temperature again. Then came the Monophysites, the Monothelites … But the list would be too long. The battle is as fierce as ever today.
The struggle with the Gnostics was inevitable and began early. In Acts (Chap. viii) there is a well-known story of a man in Samaria who had won a great reputation by “magic,” and who offered the apostles money to teach him their magic. The story is probably as correct as the description of the Pharisees: a malignant libel. Simon may very well have been an early Gnostic.
Just as “Agnostic” means one who does not know (whether there is a God or not), so “Gnostic” is a man or woman who knows. These ancient Gnostics are not difficult to understand, for they swarm today in the more wealthy American cities such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. They are initiated (generally now at five or ten dollars a lesson) into some powerful spiritual truths which are hidden from common people. Impecunious Hindus with glib tongues, Amerinds even, Theosophists, white Buddhists, Syrian “fraters,” or German transcendentalists gather little groups about them and whisper the tremendous news. It is mere verbiage from beginning to end; but it is supposed to be a superior truth seen by the intuitions of a few gifted people or revealed from a more lucid world by spirits. That is Gnosticism. These people know.
The ancient world was, as we have abundantly seen, like ours in many respects. A time of remarkable intercommunication of peoples and dissolution of old creeds had come. Ancient traditions and revelations were dropping out of fashion. Men of “intuition, of great “spiritual insight,” of religious genius, seers and sages, had become the oracles. In every city of the Greco-Roman world little groups gathered to be initiated by some gifted teacher, to this kind of rubbish, just as they gather in the small rooms of the Auditorium Building at Chicago today. What sober human reason could discover was not enough for them. It was the sublime truths (words) discovered by intuition (imagination) and revelation (fraud) that they wanted. And they got them: more cheaply in those days.
Gnosticism was not one philosophy or religion, any more than the ten contradictory creeds which these modern impostors sell to their dupes are one religion. But there were, broadly, common features, and these are all that we can notice here. The chief common feature was an intense emphasis on the contrast of matter and spirit, sin and virtue, darkness and light. The Persian religion was largely responsible for this: but Greek philosophy (in Plato), late Egyptian mysticism, and Buddhism (which reached nearer Asia, if not Greece) had the same dualism. The flesh was a contamination of the spirit which — poor thing — had to live in it for a time. Sin was a defilement for which the soul had to be purified and redeemed. Baptism (by water, blood, fire, or spirit), anointings, lustrations, and thrillingly esoteric rites, not to be revealed to the mob, helped. The world was full of evil spirits and good spirits (as Egypt, Babylon, and Persia taught), and you could exorcise these by mystic formulae or even calling them by name. Simon the Magician adopting Christianity in Samaria is a symbol of the Gnostic world, which stretched from Rome to Asia Minor, adopting it and turning it inside out.
Paul’s religion suited these mystics and ascetics. His contempt of the flesh and glorification of the spirit were common to them all. His gospel of a redeemer from sin was real “good tidings” to them. There was obviously a great deal of truth in the new religion. It might appeal to the poor and to slaves by its denunciation of wealth and its communism, but it also appealed to these “intellectuals.” Christianity spread through this esoteric world, and it set out to answer the questions which Paul and the Gospel writers had left open.
The Gnostics so hated and despised matter that they did not believe that God had created it. The Old Testament, which said that he had, was abandoned. Matter was eternal, in a chaotic state, as the Babylonians had said. But why did God have anything to do with the putrid stuff?
The Gnostics held that a number of finite but divine things had emanated from God. One of these Aeons, as they were called, had “fallen” from grace, and this altered the whole economy. God sent a great Aeon, the Demiourgos, to put order into the chaos of matter or “create” the world as we know it. This was the Jehovah of the Jews. Then he sent an Aeon of the highest rank, Soter (Redeemer), to save the fallen Aeon and rescue the elements of light, the souls of men, from their contamination with darkness. This was Christos.
But how could an Aeon of supreme rank take flesh, with all its horrors? Most of them said that he merely used a phantasmal body, not real flesh. The Gospel story was an allegory, they said, from beginning to end. Christos abandoned his ethereal body before it was crucified; and most assuredly there was no resurrection of it, and there would be no resurrection of the flesh for any man.
I have neither space nor inclination to tell all the variation of this general body of teaching. Some men of great ability rose in the Gnostic world, and for a hundred years there was a mighty struggle. The Church won, but it had contracted not a little of the Gnostic creed. Ascetical practices (fasting, etc.) and the inclination to monasticism were fostered by these haters of the flesh. Ritual and sacramental features were adopted. Baptism became more important; Jesus nowhere insists on it except in the passage added at the end of Matthew during the Gnostic struggle. Mystic ideas or speculations about Christ crept in, as the beginning of John, the latest Gospel, shows. A definite attitude toward the Old Testament was assumed. Some sort of canon of scriptures was adopted, cutting off all but the four familiar Gospels and the Epistles and Acts. Possibly a creed was drawn up, as we shall see presently. In any case, the need of authority in the Church was practically demonstrated, and the position of the bishops (or “overseers” of the communities) was greatly strengthened. It had fallen to these to fight and to drive out the “heretics.”
So Christianity in the second century emerged as a Church from its long conflict. It was a federation, no bishop acknowledging allegiance to any other bishop. But the bishop had more control of the “elders” (presbyteroi, presbyters or priests) who had at first, in a loose sort of way, managed the affairs of each community, and of the “servants” (diaconoi, deacons) who helped at the meetings. There was also now much exorcism of devils, sprinkling or baptizing with water, anointing with oil, and so on. New classes of assistants arose to share the lot (cleros) of the bishops and priests; new “clerics” exorcists, readers, doorkeepers, etc.
There was very little growth in the first two centuries. The Gospels, as we have them, seem to have been completed in the second quarter of the second century, but they left doctrinal questions open. Jesus was the Son of God, and there was also a vague Holy Spirit; but there was only one God. The Gnostic attempt to define the relations of these had been so heretical and disturbing that most Christians were content to leave the matter as it was. The only addition (in John) was that Jesus had existed as the Logos “with God” for all eternity. The Jew Philo had spoken of this Logos or “creative word” of God. But mystics do not require — if they do not actually dread — precise definitions; and the intellectualists were killed off.
The early Christian writers, men of moderate ability like Clement of Rome, Justin the Apologist and Irenaeus, had been absorbed in recommending the simple creed to pagans and Jews or defending it against the Gnostics. They did not enlarge it by speculations. The so-called Apostles’ Creed fairly represents Christian belief at the end of the second century. No theologian now supposes that it goes back even to the first century, and in its actual form it is late. But Kattenbush has traced an ancient Roman creed to the beginning of the second century, and it is generally thought to be the one given by Tertullian:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, and in Jesus Christ, his ONLY son Our Lord, who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate and buried; the third day he rose from the dead. He ascended into heaven, sitteth at the right hand of the Father. Thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead. And in the Holy Spirit, the HOLY CHURCH, the remission of sins, and the resurrection of the flesh.
Apart from the three words I have capitalized, this is just a simple summary of the religion of the Gospels as we now have them. Still the Church would not say plainly that Christ was God; and the statement that he sits at the right hand of God in heaven is an expression of uncertainty of the subject. But he is now said to be the “only” son of God. This is an outcome of the Gnostic controversy. In the second century, in fact, the Ebionites, an obscure lot who denied the divinity of Christ and the virginity of Mary, were suppressed. But it is, as I said, virtually stated in the Gospels and Paul that Christ, “the Lord,” is somehow or other God, and so there is nothing new. The insertion, in fine, of the Holy Church is a reflection of the new organization necessarily evolved out of the conflicts. The familiar doctrines of Christianity had still to be fabricated.
Fights Over Formulae
This vague and unsatisfactory condition of Christian belief could last only so long as the Church remained without men of high intellect. Ecclesiastical historians exaggerate the ability of Justin and Irenaeus and Clement of Rome. They were practical men, writing for practical purposes. The intellectuals who had joined the Church had tried to make the Christian story less crude, and they had been expelled.
But every thoughtful Christian must have asked himself what this Father and Son business really meant, if there was only one God: and as soon as any man of speculative intelligence devoted himself to the problem, there was a new heresy. Patripassians said that it was God the Father who suffered on the cross: which the bishops at once pronounced a shocking heresy. Modalists, looking to the philosophy of Aristotle, said that the Son was a “mode” of the Father; and the bishops who probably did not even know what philosophers meant by a “mode,” expelled them, after half a century of acrid quarreling. Then Jesus must have been “adopted” as a Son, said others, remembering how nearly every religion had cases of adoption into the divine family. And the Adoptionists also received the order of the boot. All this, by reactions, strengthened the episcopate, the discipline, the organization, and the terms of membership of the Church.
It was near the end of the second century when abler men than the general rabble of bishops appeared in the Christian Church: Tertullian, Cyprian, Origen, and Clement of Alexandria. Only the least intelligent of the four, Cyprian, has received the halo of the saint, and his contribution to the development of doctrine is significant. He was essentially a priest and he glorified his order. A simple division of labor and respect for the “elders” had brought about a very slight beginning of authority in the early communities. The growth of the Church had accentuated this, and the fight against heresy had raised priests and bishops more and more to the position of necessary experts. They now “searched the Scriptures” very zealously, and found that they had “received the Holy Ghost” and could “bind” or “loose” whatsoever they chose. Moreover, it was they, as successors of the apostles, who had to conduct the commemoration-supper, which was fast becoming a “sacrament,” or channel of grace, and a “sacrifice.” All this comes out most clearly in Cyprian’s writings. They contributed very materially to the evolution of priestcraft and sacramentalism.
The three abler men are all tainted with heresy. Tertullian, a somber fanatic with a mighty power of scorn, a learned priest of the African Church, remained a heretic until he died. In view of the growth of priestcraft there had been a reaction in the second century. A certain Montanus claimed that he and two lady friends — almost the only really original feature of the Christian priestcraft is, from the start, the inevitable lady friend — had received the Holy Ghost. He denied that inspiration of this kind was confined to men in “orders,” and there was a terrific fight for several decades. A large part of the Christian body resented the growth of the new sacerdotalism and rightly claimed that it had no basis in the Gospels. They held also that the clergy had no power to absolve from mortal sins. The sinner must be expelled from the Church and left to his fate. These deadly thrusts at their authority and at their ambition to make the Christian body as large as possible stung the hierarchy, and the fierce battle ended in the suppression of Montanism and a fresh accentuation of priestly authority. Hence the work of Cyprian.
Tertullian remained a Montanist or Puritan until he died. The gaiety of his early life had led to a morbid reaction, and his zeal about sin has caused him to give us some piquant pictures of the state of the Church at the end of the second and the beginning of the third century. He had a particular scorn of the Roman Church and the pretensions of its bishop or Pope. He is important mainly as a critic, an early Protestant, but, incidentally, he adopted a word of the Gnostics in regard to the relation of Father and Son. He said that the Son was homo-ousios (of the same substance) with the Father; and this would presently lead to a far more furious controversy than ever.
Clement of Alexandria and Origen (also of Alexandria) were the first to apply Greek philosophy to the Christian story in a form which could be generally accepted by the Church. It goes without saying that they were both, especially the learned Origen, heretical. In his early zeal be had naively supposed that the counsels of Jesus had to be taken literally, and he had castrated himself. on the authority of Matthew xix, 12. His later method was simple. Whatever seemed absurd or contradictory or opposed to sound science in the new faith was to be taken figuratively. He denied the eternal torment of the wicked and, like every Christian who knew both his own creed and the general culture of his time, he held a form of faith like that of the Modernist.
Origen was deposed, excommunicated, and bitterly persecuted, so that we cannot attribute to him much influence in developing the system of doctrine. Clement was more diplomatic, and remained within the Church. His writings, however, had a narrow circulation amongst the educated converts of Alexandria, and it is mainly the practice of applying the ideas of Greek philosophy to a precise definition of the Christian beliefs that we have to note in these two writers.
At first the general belief had been that baptism was the only sacrament, the only form of remission of sin, and it was deferred as long as possible so as to leave a few opportunities to human nature. Mortal sin committed after baptism could not be forgiven. This condemned the Christian body to be eternally small, and the clergy accordingly discovered that God, in his great mercy, had arranged a second escape from hell by giving the priests power to remit sin. The proof was in various texts of the Gospels about the keys of heaven, the power to bind and to loose, and so on: texts which earlier priests had thoughtfully interpolated in the primitive records of the life of Jesus.
There was, as I have said, a very wide and strong revolt against this, and it was still largely held that apostasy during a persecution could not be forgiven. In face of the general apostasy in the third century the last trace of the old rigor had to go. All sins could be forgiven by the priests: a most happy and convenient discovery, both for the priests and the sinners. The Catholic doctrine of sacraments and orders was being slowly and shamelessly developed.
The Evolution Of Priestcraft
An odious word, priestcraft. It means, literally, the trade or skilled work of priests, but, probably through its connection with priests, the word “craft” has come to have an unpleasant insinuation. It is, I am told, malicious and untruthful to use it. And I retort that in the plainest literary and historical sense of the word what I am going to describe is the evolution of priestcraft. The “evolution” of Christianity is of the variety that is now called “creative evolution”; and the creator was the ambition of the clergy.
Strictly orthodox people will tell you that Christ left secret instructions with his apostles how to form and equip his Church when the time came, and that, after all, the Holy Spirit remained with them. It is unfortunate that one half of Christendom interprets these secret instructions and the counsels of the Holy Ghost in the directly opposite manner to the other half. The Catholic thinks that the plan included the creation of priests, bishops, archbishops, Popes, the eucharist, the confessional, seven sacraments, the mass, etc.; the Protestant, who does not seem to know what the Holy Ghost was about from the third to the sixteenth century, says that the instructions were precisely to damn and anathematize all these things.
Let us use a little common sense. Jesus expected the end of the world within twenty or thirty years, and he never dreamed about a “church.” Philologists are not agreed as to where the word came from even, and few now admit that it is a corruption of kuriake, “the Lord’s [house].” There was at first a gathering or meeting, which is in Greek ecclesie, or in Latin-Greek ecclesia. In time of peace the Christians built or bought special rooms, Some think that the meeting-place of the Greek and Roman trade union was the model. Others think that the court-room or public hall (basitica) was followed. However that may be, the Christians, seeing that the end of the world did not come, were forced to have temples like their religious neighbors.
By what steps this “church” became a building of the common religious type, with a severely isolated and consecrated body of priests offering “sacrifice” at one end of it, no one can tell; but the idea that this was “according to plan” is absurd.
Whatever else is obscure, it is plain that in the early Church there was only one “sacrament”; and that not in the doctrinal sense, for the Catholic doctrine of sacraments was manufactured mainly by Augustine. Baptism itself presents no difficulty. It was common in Judea and in all the ethical religions of the time. All the other “sacraments” were plainly manufactured by the priests. Cyprian very effectively began the manufacture of “holy orders.” Extreme Unction and Confirmation crept up to the rank so slowly and unobtrusively that no one can retrace the evolution. As to “matrimony,” hardly any Catholic doctrine is more audacious. The Church had no control of marriage until the Middle Ages. It was a purely human matter. The “seven sacraments” are a discovery of the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century; and the most resolute theologian cannot affect to find them before the fifth century. They are priest-made; and, since they gave enormous power and wealth to the clergy, they are priestcraft-made.
The services grew in the same manner. There is no heresy about the eucharist in early times because there was no eucharist. There was no “mass.” The word is said to come from the closing words in Latin: “Ite, missa est” (“Clear out: it is all over”). But the ritual was in Greek, even in Rome, until the end of the third century. Cyprian had by that time discovered that the offering of the bread and wine was a “sacrifice,” and only a consecrated priest could offer it. The ritual was, however, probably borrowed for the most part from the Mithraic mass. Augustine is repeatedly in difficulties on that point. The Manichees also had a “consecrated host,” and Augustine stoops so low as seriously to repeat the Christian calumny that, to make their sacrament, the priest had intercourse with a lady of the congregation and moistened the flour with the seminal fluid! As I said, the Church covered up its traces so effectively that we follow its evolution with difficulty.
If is clear that every fresh development increased the power of the clergy, the dependence and subjection of the laity, and it will be enough to illustrate this from the evolution of the Papacy.
Of the two titles of the head of the Roman Church, Pope and Sovereign Pontiff, the first (Papa — the Roman child’s word for “father”) was the common title of all bishops in the first few centuries and is still a common title in the east: the second is the title of the head of the Roman (pagan) religion, which the Bishops of Rome assumed when the Christian emperors discarded it. That title is a fitting symbol of the paganization of the Church, the imitation of the pagan priesthoods. But in this particular development priest was endeavoring to exploit priest, which is a very different matter from exploiting the laity, and there was a historic struggle which only ended with the general ruin of Europe. The Pope became Pope only when there was no other Pope, no strong bishop, to oppose his claim.
The evidence of forgery is now so notorious that even the “Catholic Encyclopedia” has to sacrifice one beloved and profitable fiction after another. The evidence is hardly less notorious to historical scholars in regard to the Papacy, but no Catholic publication would dare to weaken the foundations of that formidable institution, and so the “Encyclopedia” and all other Catholic works put before their readers a grossly untruthful account of its fortunes in the early Church. I have analyzed the evidence in my “Crises in the History of the Papacy” and, for the chief points, in my “Popes and Their Church.” A slight sketch will suffice here.
It was not unnatural that in the early Church the episcopal sees which were supposed to have been directly founded by the apostles should be regarded as a special distinction. This sentiment was carefully fostered by the occupants of the sees. It entitled them to the first place and the most oracular utterance in assemblies. In their churches, they said, the tradition of the apostles existed in its purest form. Rome, where the Church was said to have been founded by Peter and Paul, the two greatest apostles, was one of these outstanding sees.
But unfortunately for the ambition of the Roman bishops, there were other “apostolic sees” in the east, and the occupants watched their Roman brother as rivals watch an ambitious candidate for the presidency of the United States. They smiled at his pretensions. The list of Popes for several centuries does not contain a single man of any distinction. Half the martyrs of the list are bogus, and most of the saints got their haloes very cheap. To the Greeks it was, in spite of the importance of Rome, a sort of colonial bishopric. There were two million Christians in the east, and not two hundred thousand in the west. How the eastern churches ever suffered the adoption of a Gospel in which Rome had interpolated the priceless pun about Peter, I have never been able to understand.
However, when, in 190, the Roman bishop made a first trial of his wings, be fell to earth very heavily. Pope Victor commanded the bishops of Asia Minor to celebrate Easter on the same day as the Romans. There you are, says the Catholic writer; Papal supremacy in the year 190. The Catholic writer never tells the sequel. Catholic Truth always means the suppression of unpalatable truth. Any person (who can read Greek, or at least Latin) will find in the “Ecclesiastical History” of Bishop Eusebius (v, 34) that the Asiatic bishops told Victor to mind his own business, and, when he pompously insisted, were very rude to him.
Some twenty years later the sardonic Tertullian writes that he hears that some bishop of Rome is calling himself “the Sovereign Pontiff,” and he whips the claim with his scorn. But this particular Pope, “Saint and Martyr Callistus” — an ex-slave who died comfortably in his bed after a very comfortable and by no means ascetic life — seems to have confined his ambition to a region where there was no other cock to fight.
In 252 “St.” Cyprian came up against the Papal ambition; and Catholic writers proudly tell how this great saint and martyr acknowledged the Roman claim. He did precisely the opposite. With all the African bishops at his back he gave the ambitious Pope Cornelius just the same thrashing as the Asiatic bishops had given Pope Victor. In letter after letter — see especially lv and lxvii in the Migne collection — he told Rome to mind its own business, to drop its arrogant and foolish claim, and to see that “each prelate has the right to follow his own judgment.” Pope Stephen tried to follow up the matter, and the African bishops, meeting in solemn council, drafted a scalding reply, still extant, which closes all question of Papal authority in the third century.
As far as the eastern Churches are concerned I need not labor the point. They have never acknowledged the Pope’s claim. Every assertion of it was met with scorn from the first. The African Church remained the only one of importance in the west, outside Italy, and to its last days it resisted Rome. The Catholic writer always quotes a supposed saying of St. Augustine, in the Pelagian controversy: “Rome has spoken: the case is finished.” He said nothing of the kind. It is a complete misrepresentation of his words, in his 131st sermon: “The decisions of two [African] councils have been sent to the Apostolic See, and a rescript has reached us. The case is finished.” It is the joint condemnation which he stresses. And what the Catholic writer never adds, and usually does not know, is that the African bishops detected the Pope in the use of forgeries, and told him that they trusted to hear “no more of his pompousness.” When they did hear more of it. they sent him a scornful letter about his attempt to “introduce the empty pride of the world into the Church of Christ.”
A few years later, Italy, Spain and Africa were trodden under the feet of the northern barbarians. The Pope was “head of the universal Church”: that is to say, of the universal ruin west of the Adriatic Sea. The part of the world which remained more or less civilized, east of the Adriatic, laughed at the claims of the Popes. In the west there remained only one strong bishop, Hilary, and when Pope Leo tried to exert an authority over him, he used, the Pope himself says (Ep. x, 3) “language which no layman even should dare to use.”
Then the black night of the Middle Ages descended, and Popes could perform such antics as no leaders of religion have ever performed in the world before or since. The crop of forgeries grew thicker every decade. Lives of saints and martyrs appeared, as I have earlier described, by the thousand. The whole story of the first four centuries was falsified, and history received an adulteration from which it has not yet completely recovered.
Popes went on to aim at kingship as well as spiritual supremacy. Pope Gregory — “St. Gregory the Great” — ruling fifty thousand grossly ignorant people in the sixth century where the emperors had, ruled a million, persuaded the “new rich” of Italy that the end of the world was now really at hand, and they would do well to enter heaven naked. He thus secured enormous tracts of Italy for the Papacy. But this was not enough for the Popes of the eighth century. They forged the most amazing documents that forgers ever produced, duped even Charlemagne with them, and founded the Papal States.