The Way of the Church
Two Views of Church History-IV
by Hugh Nibley, Ph.D.
Improvement Era 58 (Oct. 1955), 708-10
One Act or Three? Few historians at the present time will maintain that the Christian church today is the result of a smooth and unbroken transmission of institutions and doctrines without change or shadow of change since the days of the apostles. Since no one doubts the necessity and convenience of making certain major divisions in church history, we would strongly urge that the most meaningful and logical division is that so clearly indicated by the New Testament itself. To accept those clearly marked periods (1) revelation, (2) darkness, and (3) restoration, however, is to reject the whole conventional concept of church history as one long unbroken irresistible victory campaign.
Yet even conventional church history is now being forced to spoil the simplicity of the accepted plot of the growing admission that the early church was something very special. It would be hard to find a history of the church that does not honor the "primitive church" with a section all of its own; but of recent years the uniqueness and peculiarities of that church have become objects of the most intense research, which is showing more and more how totally different the original church of Christ was from any of the churches claiming to be derived from it or from any of the ideas which scholars have hitherto entertained concerning it.
The term "primitive church" is itself revealing. The early Christians, far from thinking of themselves as primitive, tell us often that they are living at the end of an aeon in a world ripe for destruction. Though they lived by prophecy, no allowances or provisions were made by them for greater refinements or improvements in their own institution in the years ahead. The church of the apostles was ready for the end, coming as it did at "the end of the aeon," not at the beginning of a long period of progress.
Still the designation and idea of a "primitive church" are necessary to later generations both as a salve to conscience (this is very clear in Chrysostom) and a sop to vanity (equally ditto in Jerome), for if the glaring differences between the original and the later churches could not be denied, they would have to be explained; and the only explanation that could save the face of Christianity—let alone make it look good—was that which decided with patronizing indulgence that the early church was just "primitive" and its disappearance a necessary and inevitable phase in the growth and progress of an institution.
The folly and vanity of a theory that looks upon the church of the apostles with patronizing superiority and glories in the irrelevant and highly suspect virtues of size and sophistication as proofs of progress, needs no comment. A basic lack of conviction in the argument may be seen in desperate attempts to dress the primitive church up to look like modern churches; serious students know better, of course, but that does not keep the producers of movies and television from assuring the general public that the church really has changed hardly at all, and showing, to prove it, ancient apostles dressed up as eighth-century bishops or mouthing the sentimental commonplaces of the schools through the whiskers and robes of traveling sophists.
But looking behind such flimsy tricks, we find that earnest investigators of church history, Catholic and Protestant alike, are discovering as it were for the first time the great gulf that lies between the ancient church and conventional Christianity, and being surprisingly frank in their comments. More and more they are forcing themselves also to face up to the dark interval of the second act, though most of them still cling desperately to the old rewrite interpretations of "Advance through Storm," "Struggle and Progress," "The Certain Victory," etc.
This interpretation so deranges the plot that the third act must either be dropped out entirely or completely rewritten: naturally we can't have a "restitution of all things" if all things have been carefully preserved and steadily improved through the centuries. And so we have the third and final act, the great culminating events of world history, studiously effaced by church historians: what we have to reckon with, we are now told, was a "spiritual" second coming which has already taken place; it was "the Easter experience," some suggest—Pentecost, according to others; it was all a mistake, a tragic miscalculation, according to another school; it is fulfilled in the Real Presence, to follow another; others have maintained that since the crucifixion was the supreme event of all time, all that followed was mere anticlimax; others have made the second coming a mystical experience. And so they go: whatever it is, that third act, as we have called it, is not the great event predicted by the scriptures. Acts two and three are out!
What, then, did happen after the apostles? Do we have reliable reports for the years following? Was it all bad? How did the Christians continue to think of the world and their position in it? Did they expect the lights to go out? Were they surprised when they did? Were they disappointed when the Lord failed to come? Did they believe that what was happening actually was the end? Such questions are the special food of church history in our day. The mere fact that they are being asked now as never before is an invitation to Latter-day Saints to enter the discussion which seems at last to be turning to their own point of view.
The history of the church is not a one-act play, a single, long protracted happy ending from start to finish, with a baffled and frustrated villain vainly trying to score a telling point against a cause that is always assured of success and never in any real danger. Yet such a fantastically wishful and unreal plot is the only alternative to the one set forth in the Bible which places the happy ending at the end—"when his glory shall be revealed and all made glad"—with a time of heaviness preceding it, during which the prince of this world holds sway and all the promised glories to come are forgotten in a tragic preoccupation with the things which please men. The story of the church is unfolded not in one act but three.
This is not the discovery of modern scholars or the private hypothesis of Latter-day Saints—through the centuries the church fathers have been aware of it, and it has worried them a great deal. It is very important to understand that the fate of God's people on earth, specifically, the course of "the church" through the ages (for the idea of "the church" is a very ancient one) has been a subject of vital concern to certain men in every period of history.
From the most ancient prophets to the latest monograph, men have not ceased talking and speculating on this theme. As the Lord was not the first prophet sent into the vineyard, neither was his church without precedent in the world. Church history does not begin suddenly one day in Palestine, any more than the story of the redemption begins with certain shepherds watching their flocks. The mighty drama goes back to the very beginning and leaves its mark in the documents of every age. It is a far bigger thing than the seminarists and schoolmen realize.
In the preceding articles we first indicated the strong and undeniable bias which has controlled the writing of conventional church history since the days of Eusebius. Next we offered a brief preliminary sketch, based on the New Testament, of another view of church history. That view may be thus briefly summed up: the original followers of Christ sought their reward and placed all their hopes in the other world and the return of the Lord in judgment, believing that as far as this world is concerned the work of the church would not prosper but soon come to a close, being followed by a long time of darkness that would end only with the restoration of all things in preparation for the coming of the Lord. Such in barest outline is the substance of "the other view" of church history. It will be readily admitted that it is not the conventional view, and it remains for us now to show from the early sources that it most certainly was the true authentic view of church history held by the members of the early church in apostolic times and after. We shall also show the present trend among students of church history toward the recognition of glaring defects in the conventional picture and increasing awareness of the existence and the validity of the earlier concept.