Short Papers on Church History — Introduction

by Andrew Miller.


As all we know of history comes to us through books, I have examined, with some care, the authors which are most esteemed in this country and considered the most reliable. And although there is frequent reference to volume and page, this by no means indicates all that has been gathered from those histories. It would be impossible to say how many thoughts, words, and sentences, are interwoven with my own. The references have been generally given, not so much to verify what has been written, as to induce the reader to study them or whatever works may now be available as he may have opportunity. The materials are so varied and abundant, that the difficulty lies in making a selection, so as to maintain a continued historic line, and yet leave out what would now be neither profitable nor interesting.

Some of my earliest and valued friends, such as Greenwood, Milman, and Craigie Robertson, conclude their histories about the fourteenth century; Waddington, D'Aubigné, and Scott, about the middle of the sixteenth; and Wylie closes his history of Protestantism with its establishment under the reign of William and Mary. Dr. M'Crie's special histories and biographies are extremely valuable; and so is the history of Protestantism in France by Felice, the history of the Reformation in the Low Countries by Brandt, the brief history of the Middle Ages and the Reformation by Hardwick, and also Cunningham's history of the Scotch Church; but good general histories from the early part of the sixteenth to the present century are indeed scarce.

I have aimed at more than mere history. It has been my desire to connect with it Christ and His Word, so that the reader may receive the truth and blessing, through grace, to his soul. And it will be observed that I commence with the Lord's revealed purpose concerning His Church in Matthew 16. Other parts of the New Testament have been carefully examined as to the first planting of the Church, but its actual history I have endeavoured to trace in the light of the addresses to the seven Churches in Asia. This, of course, must be in a very general way, as I have been desirous to give the reader as broad a view of ecclesiastical history as possible, consistently with my plan and brevity.

May the Lord's blessing accompany the volume that now goes forth.


Short Papers on Church History


Many of our readers, we know, have neither the time nor the opportunity for reading the voluminous works that have been written from time to time on the history of the church. Still, that which has been the dwelling-place of God for the last eighteen hundred years, must be a subject of the deepest interest to all His children. We speak not now of the church as it is often represented in history, but as it is spoken of in scripture. There it is seen in its true spiritual character, as the body of Christ, and as the "habitation of God through the Spirit." (Ephesians 2)

We must always bear in mind, when reading what is called a history of the church, that, from the days of the apostles until now, there have been two distinct and widely different, classes of persons in the professing church: the merely nominal, and the real — the true, and the false. This was predicted. "For I know this," says the apostle, "that after my departure shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them." (Acts 20) His Second Epistle to Timothy is also full of warnings and directions as to the various forms of evil which were then but too plainly manifest. A rapid change for the worse had taken place from the time that his first epistle was written. He exhorts the truly godly to walk in separation from those who had a form of godliness, but who denied the power thereof. "From such," he says, "turn away." Such exhortations are always needed, always applicable — as much now as then. We cannot separate ourselves from Christendom without giving up Christianity but we can and ought to separate ourselves from what the apostle calls "vessels to dishonour." The promise is, that, "if a man . . . purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified and meet for the master's use, and prepared unto every good work."

It is interesting — though painfully so — to mark the difference on this point between the First and the Second Epistles to Timothy. In the first, the church is spoken of according to its true character and blessed position on the earth. There it is seen as the house of God — the depository and display of truth to man. In the Second Epistle, it is spoken of as what it had become through the failure of those into whose hands it had been entrusted.

Take one passage from each Epistle in illustration. 1. "These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly; but if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, . . . the pillar and ground of the truth." 2. "But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth, and some to honour, and some to dishonour." Here all is changed — sadly changed. In place of divine order there is hopeless confusion; in place of "the house of God, the pillar and ground of truth," there is "a great house" — practically "the mystery of iniquity." In place of the house being kept according to the will of God and suitable for Him, it was arranged and ordered according to the will of man, and for his own personal advantage and exaltation. Thus early had the evils, which have been the sin and the disgrace of Christendom ever since, made their appearance. But this was overruled for good. The Spirit of God, in great mercy, has supplied us with the plainest directions for the darkest day of the church's history, and has pointed out the way of truth for the worst of times; so that we are left without excuse. Times and circumstances change, not the truth of God.

The Mistakes of Historians in General

Some historians, it is sorrowful to say, have not taken into account this sad mixture of evil vessels with the good — of true Christians and false. They have not themselves been spiritually minded men. Hence they have rather made it their chief object to record the many unchristian and wicked ways of mere professors. They have dwelt at great length, and with great minuteness, on the heresies that have troubled the church, on the abuses that have disgraced it, and on the controversies that have distracted it. Much rather would we endeavour to trace, all down through the long dark pages of history, the silver line of God's grace in true Christians; though at times the alloy so predominates that the pure ore is scarcely perceptible.

God has never left Himself without a witness. He has had His loved and cherished though hidden ones in all ages and in all places. No eye but His could see the seven thousand in Israel who had not bowed the knee to the image of Baal, in the days of Ahab and Jezebel. And tens of thousands, we doubt not, even from the darkest ages of Christianity, will be found at last in the "glorious church," which Christ will present to Himself, on the long-looked-for day of His nuptial joy. Many precious stones from the rubbish of the "middle ages" will reflect His grace and glory on that crowning day.

Blessed thought! even now it fills the soul with ecstasy and delight. Lord, hasten that happy day for Thine own name's sake!

The truly godly are instinctively humble. They are generally retiring, and for the most part but little known. There is no humility so deep and real as that which the knowledge of grace produces. Such lowly and hidden ones find but a small place on the historic page. But the insinuating or zealous heretic, and the noisy or visionary fanatic, are too clamorous to escape notice. Hence it is that the historian has so carefully recorded the foolish principles and the evil practices of such men.

We will now turn for a little, and take a general view of the first part of our subject, namely

The Seven Churches of Asia

These seven Epistles, so far, will guide our future studies. We believe they are not only historical, but also prophetical. Doubtless they are strictly historical, and this fact must be allowed its full weight in studying their prophetic character. Seven churches actually existed in the seven cities here named, and in the condition here described. But it is equally clear, that they were intended, by Him who knows the end from the beginning, to bear a prophetic meaning, as well as a historical application. They were selected from amongst many, and so arranged and described as to foreshadow what was to come. To limit their application to the seven literal churches then in Asia would be to mar the unity of the Apocalypse, and to lose the promised blessing. "Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy." The character of the whole book is prophetic and symbolic. The second and third chapters are no exception to this. They are introduced by the Lord Himself in their mystic character. "The mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest in My right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches: and the seven candlesticks which thou sawest are the seven churches."

The number seven is characteristic. It marks a complete circle of the thoughts or ways of God as to time. Hence the seven days of the week — the seven feasts of Israel — the seven parables of the kingdom of heaven in mystery. It is often used throughout this book, which takes up Jew, Gentile, and the church of God, as responsible on the earth. Hence we have seven churches, seven stars, seven candlesticks, seven angels, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven vials or the seven last plagues. Only in chapters 2 & 3 is the church seen as responsible on the earth, and the object of divine government. From chapter 4-19 she is seen in heaven. Then she appears in full manifested glory with her Lord. "And the armies which were in heaven followed Him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean."

In the body of the book, especially from chapter 6, the Jews and Gentiles come before us, and are judicially dealt with from the throne of God in heaven. But this will not take place till after the church — the true bride of the Lamb — is caught up to heaven, and the merely nominal corrupt thing finally rejected.

The threefold division of the book, as given by the Lord Himself, makes the order of events quite plain, and ought to have immense weight as a principle of interpretation in the study of the Apocalypse. In chapter 1:19 He gives us the contents and plan of the whole book: "Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter," — or, literally, "after these things." "The things which thou hast seen" refer to the revelation of Jesus as seen by John in chapter 1; "the things which are," to the time-condition of the professing body as presented in chapters 2 & 3. "The things which shall be hereafter" are from chapter 4 to the end. The third division begins with chapter 4. A door is opened in heaven, and the prophet is called to come up. "Come up hither, and I will show thee things which must be hereafter," or "after these things." It is the same phrase in chapter 4:1 as in chapter 1:19. The things which are, and the things which shall be after these things, cannot possibly be concurrent. The one must end before the other begins.

When the number seven is used, not in a literal but in a symbolic sense, it always signifies completeness. It is evidently thus used in chapters 2 & 3. There were other churches, we know, besides those named; but seven are selected and associated to present a complete picture of what would afterwards be developed in the church's history on earth. The more important moral elements which then existed, the Lord foresaw, would reappear in course of time. Thus we have a sevenfold or divinely perfect picture of the successive states of the professing church during the entire period of her responsibility on the earth.

We will now take a rapid glance at the outline of the seven churches, and give a general idea of the different periods in history to which they apply.

Outline of the Seven Churches

Ephesus. In Ephesus the Lord detects the root of all declension. "Thou hast left thy first love." It is threatened with the removal of the candlestick unless there be repentance.
Period — from the apostolic age to the close of the second century.

Smyrna. The message of Ephesus is general, to Smyrna it is specific. And though it applied at that time to the assembly there, it shadowed forth, in the most striking way the repeated persecutions through which the church passed under the heathen emperors. Yet God may have used the power of the world to arrest the progress of evil in the church.
Period — from the second century to Constantine.

Pergamos. Here we have the establishment of Christianity by Constantine as the religion of the State. Instead of persecuting the Christians, he patronized them. From that moment the downward course of the church is rapid. Her unholy alliance with the world proved her saddest and deepest fall. It was then that she lost the true sense of her relationship to Christ in heaven, and of her character on earth as a pilgrim and a stranger.
Period — from the beginning of the fourth to the seventh century, when popery was established.*
*The title "Pope" was first adopted by Hyginus in 139; and Pope Boniface III induced Phocas, Emperor of the East, to confine it to the prelates of Rome in 606. By the connivance of Phocas also the pope's supremacy over the Christian church was established-Haydn's Dictionary of Dates.

Thyatira. In Thyatira we have the popery of the middle ages, Jezebel-like, practising all kinds of wickedness, and persecuting the saints of God, under the disguise of religious zeal. Nevertheless there was a God-fearing remnant in Thyatira;, whom the Lord comforts with the bright hope of His coming, and with the promise of power over the nations, when He Himself shall reign. But the word of exhortation to the remnant is, "That which ye have already, hold fast till I come."
Period —
from the establishment of popery to the Lord's coming. It goes on to the end, but is characterised by the dark ages.

Sardis. Here we see the Protestant part of Christendom that which followed the great work of the Reformation. The foul features of popery disappear, but the new system itself has no vitality. "Thou hast a name that thou livest and art dead." But there are true saints in these lifeless systems, and Christ knows them all. "Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white: for they are worthy."
Period — from the eventful sixteenth century onwards. Protestantism after the Reformation.

Philadelphia. The church of Philadelphia presents a feeble remnant, but they are faithful to the word and name of the Lord Jesus. That which characterised them was keeping the word of Christ's patience, and not denying His name. Their condition was not marked by any outward display of power nor of anything externally great, but of close, intimate personal communion with Himself. He is in their midst as the Holy One and the True, and is represented as having charge of the house. He has "the key of David." The treasures of the prophetic word are unlocked for those inside. They are also in the sympathies of His patience, and in the expectation of His coming. "Because thou hast kept the word of My patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth."
Period — especially from an early part of this century but activity on all hands is now rapidly developing the last phases of Christendom.

Laodicea. In Laodicea we have lukewarmness — indifference — latitudinarianism; but with high pretensions, a boastful spirit, and great self-sufficiency. This is the last state of that which bears the name of Christ on the earth. But alas! it is intolerable to Him. Its final doom has come. Having separated every true believer from the corruptions of Christendom to Himself, He spues it out of His mouth. That which ought to have been sweet to His taste has become nauseous, and it is cast off for ever.
Period — beginning after Philadelphia, but especially the closing scene.

Having thus taken a general view of the seven churches, we would now endeavour, through the Lord's help, briefly to trace these different periods of the church's history. And we purpose examining more fully, each of the seven Epistles as we go along, that we may ascertain what light is shed on the different periods by these addresses; and how far the facts of church history illustrate the scripture history of these two chapters. May the Lord guide for the refreshment and blessing of His own beloved ones.