1902 Encyclopedia > Christianity > The Corruptions of Christianity

(Part 25)

The Corruptions of Christianity

It only remains to allude briefly to the corruptions of Christianity. It has been already stated that Christianity had a fourfold conflict to maintain with Judaism, Rome, Gnosticism, and an enthusiastic and sometimes immoral pietism. If we add to this pagan superstition, we shall have the chief heads of the opposition which Christianity had to encounter. After its triumph these sources of anti-Christian action still remained to be contended against, and became the chief springs of its corruption. The spirit of Judaism, of Roman worldly policy, of pagan superstition, of pagan philosophy, and of immorality entered into Christianity and tended to corrupt it.

One of the earliest causes of the corruption of Christianity was the attempt to translate the Christian kingdom of God into a visible monarchy in which the saints inherited the earth in a literal way. The Church was the more tempted to enter into this course during the period of the decay of the Roman empire, when civil authority became very weak and the real rulers were in many cases the principal clergy of the place. The consciousness of power inspired a desire for its insignia, and soon the bishop and superior clergy adorned themselves in the official robes of Rome's municipal and provincial officers, This whole tendency received a great impulse during the period that Rome was abandoned by her emperors, and when the chief citizen in the imperial city was undoubtedly the Christian bishop, How all this tended to corrupt Christianity is very apparent. In the first place it generated the idea that the Christian kingdom is a visible monarchy and that its marks are such as can be seen; and it led Christians to postpone everything to the earthly aggrandizement of the church. It translated spiritual forces into mechanical and physical equivalents. The very term spiritual, which belongs to the affections and emotions and thoughts and will, to the whole inward life, was used to denote whatever belonged to the church or the clergy. Land became spiritual when it passed into the hands of the bishops; men were spiritual if they were servants of the church; things were spiritual if they were church property. There resulted, in short, a gradual coarsening of ideas, and all that was most inward, hidden, and sacred was forgotten in the strife for worldly position and power and wealth. On the other hand, this tendency worked a good deal deeper. Worldly men who found their way into the ministry were tempted to favour any kind of superstitious error that tended to bring them profit and power. The people were often disposed to fancy that the priests could serve God in their stead, and that there were mysteries in religion which the priests understood, but which the laity need not know anything of and ought not to inquire into. Hence they were ready to follow blindly the guidance of the priests in religious matters, just as a man trusts his legal concerns to his lawyer, doing what he directs and not considering it necessary himself to study law. Ambitious and worldly minded rulers, too, are generally glad to make use of religion as an instrument for securing the submission of the people to tyrannical oppression, and for aiding their ambitious views when they seek to subdue their neighbours under the pretext of propagating the true faith. Then again, this idea tends to breed false views of Christian unity. It leads men to think that they cannot be true Christians unless they belong to one community which is visible and universal. And this idea tends to keep up and intensify other errors. For if a man is convinced that all Christians are bound to belong to some one community on earth, he will dread nothing so much as separation from that church, whatever it may be, which he considers as having the best claim to be that one community,

Many corruptions of Christianity have been either introduced or favoured and kept up by moral corruption in the members of a Christian Church. For it belongs to the true gospel to purify and also to elevate the moral character. Hence there is a complete and constant opposition between genuine Christianity and all the evil and base propensities of man's nature. Every kind of depravity or moral defect therefore predisposes men either to reject Christianity altogether, or else to introduce or to accept some erroneous views of it. And there is no kind of religious corruption against which men are usually less on their guard. They are well aware, indeed that there is a danger of men's falling into sin in violation of the precepts of religion, but they are too apt to think that a man who has embraced a true faith will therefore be made a good moral man. This erroneous idea appears in its most extreme form in the views of those who have been called Antinomians, and who have appeared in all ages of the church from apostolic times down to our own day. They appear to believe that whoever has faith is thereby lifted into a new life to which the moral laws of the old life are inapplicable, and are therefore privileged to do without censure or danger what others would be condemned for.

Nothing perhaps has tended more thoroughly to corrupt Christianity than the introduction into it of superstitions which are really pagan themselves, or have been suggested by pagan practices. Paganism, unable to oppose Christianity successfully, has done much to corrupt it, and in numberless ways has made inroads upon its purity.

The corruptions which entered into Christianity from Judaism have already been noticed, and the corrupting effects of the reproduction of the symbolic temple worship and the Jewish idea of priesthood need not be again referred to. It only remains to speak of those corruptions which have arisen from the contact of Christianity with pagan philosophy. The special corruptions which have arisen from this contact have been called heresies, and have been of various kinds and degrees, but of these we need not speak. A more subtle influence and one to be even more jealously guarded against, is the transformation of Christianity itself into an intellectual system or philosophy, or the supposition that it is the intellectual side of Christianity which is the only one or the chief. The inevitable tendency of such an impulse is to remove Christianity as a system to be apprehended from the Christian people, and to reduce their relation to it to a submissive assent to Christian doctrine as that is manufactured for them by the dogmatic machinery of the church. And thus, in place of that wholehearted trust which waits for personal illumination, there is on the side of the people a blindfold assent, and on the other side the claim to an infallible system of intellectual truth.

The continual and steady growth of Christianity, its vigorous life in spite of various seasons of unavoidable ebb and notwithstanding the presence of all these and other sources of corruption, and its continual rejuvenescence, are no ordinary proof of its divine origin as well as of its supreme fitness for the position in the world which it claims to occupy.

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