CHAPTER XIV. THE LEGACY OF THE EARLY CHURCH TO FUTURE GENERATIONS.
It is my object in this chapter to show the great Christian ideas which the fathers promulgated, and which have proved of so great influence on the Middle Ages and our own civilization. These were declared before the Roman empire fell; and if they did not arrest ruin, still alleviated the miseries of society, and laid the foundation of all that is most ennobling among modern nations. The early church should be the most glorious chapter in the history of humanity. While the work of destruction was going on in every part of the world, both by vice and violence, there was still the new work of creation proceeding with it, a precious savor of life to future ages. If there is any thing sublime, it is the power of renovating ideas amid universal degeneracy. They are seeds of truth, which grow and ripen into grand institutions. These did not become of sufficient importance to arrest the attention of historians until they were cultivated by the Germanic nations in the Middle Ages.
It could be shown that almost everything which gives glory to Christian civilization had its origin in the early church. Few are aware what giants and heroes were those fathers and saints whom this age has been taught to despise. We are really reaping the results of those conflicts - conflicts with bigoted Jewish sects; conflicts with the high priests of paganism, with Greek philosophers, with Gnostic Manichaean illuminati; with the symbolists, soothsayers, astrologers, magicians, which mystic superstition conjured up among degenerate people. And not merely their conflicts with the prince of the power of the air alone, but with themselves, with their own fiery passions, and with tangible outward foes. They were illustrious champions and martyrs in the midst of a great Vanity Fair, in a Nebuchadnezzar fire of persecutions, an all- pervading atmosphere of lies, impurities, and abominations which cried to heaven for vengeance. They solved for us and for all future generations the thousand of new questions which audacious paganism proposed in its last struggles; they exposed the bubbles which charmed that giddy generation of egotists; they eliminated the falsehoods which vain-glorious philosophers had inwrought with revelation; and they attested, with dying agonies, to the truth of those mysteries which gave them consolation and hope amid the terrors of a dissolving world. They absorbed even into the sphere of Christianity all that was really valuable in the system they exploded, whether of philosophy or social life, and transmitted the same to future ages. And they set examples, of which the world will never lose sight, of patience, fortitude, courage, generosity, which will animate all martyrs to the end of time. And if, in view of their great perplexities, of circumstances which they could not control, utter degeneracy and approaching barbarism, they lent their aid to some institutions which we cannot endorse, certainly when corrupted, like Manichaeism and ecclesiastical domination, let us remember that these were adapted to their times, or were called out by pressing exigencies. And further, let us bear in mind that, in giving their endorsement, they could not predict the abuse of principles abstractly good and wise, like poverty, and obedience, and chastity, and devout meditation, and solitary communion with God. In all their conduct and opinions, we see, nevertheless, a large-hearted humanity, a toleration and charity for human infirmities, and a beautiful spirit of brotherly love. If they advocated definite creeds with great vehemence and earnestness, they yet soared beyond them, and gloried in the general name they bore, until the fundamental doctrines of their religion were assailed.