|Paraphrased Text (in 1st person of the author)
|1. Since Christianity has been in the world for such a long time, we ought to deal with it as a matter of historical fact, and not merely something of private opinion. Christianity encompasses certain characteristics, distinctive qualities, doctrines, precepts, and objects which also deserve to be treated as matters of fact, and not merely matters of private opinion. If we want to insist that Christianity is simply whatever people want to make of it, it is only fair that we should think the same way about other things like Islam, or the political, social, and religious frameworks governing life in Ancient Greece. Yes, it is appropriate to speculate about Christianity in a theoretical way, as when asking, "Is Christianity a good source of morality or political principles?" or, "How should we think of Christianity in relation to other ideas?" or "Is Christianity a true religion revealed by God, or is it man-made?", among other questions. Indeed, one may speculate along these lines and ultimately come to hold a private opinion as a result. Still, the speculations and opinions relate to a fact, the fact of what Christianity is, and this fact must be established in the same way that people generally establish facts. Centuries of reflection concerning the essential reality of Christianity testify to us of a clear and generally recognized definition of Christianity. Therefore, to say that the definition of Christianity is an entirely private matter is either to neglect or to contradict the historic testimony of thinkers available to us. So, then, Christianity is not just a theory for thinkers pondering in their armchairs. It has become public property, with its sound "gone out into all lands" and its "words unto the ends of the world." From its beginning, Christianity has had an objective existence and has been promoted to the attention of the masses of humanity. Christianity is a reality dwelling in the world; therefore, we must seek it in the world and hear about it according to the world's own terms.
|1. CHRISTIANITY has been long enough in the world to justify us in dealing with it as a fact in the world's history. Its genius and character, its doctrines, precepts, and objects cannot be treated as matters of private opinion or deduction, unless we may reasonably so regard the Spartan institutions or the religion of Mahomet. It may indeed legitimately be made the subject-matter of theories; what is its moral and political excellence, what its due location in the range of ideas or of facts which we possess, whether it be divine or human, whether original or eclectic, or both at once, how far favourable to civilization or to literature, whether a religion for all ages or for a particular state of society, these are questions upon the fact, or professed solutions of the fact, and belong to the province of opinion; but to a fact do they relate, on an admitted fact do they turn, which must be ascertained as other facts, and surely has on the whole been so ascertained, unless the testimony of so many centuries is to go for nothing. Christianity is no theory of the study or the cloister. It has long since passed beyond the letter of documents and the reasonings of individual minds, and has become public property. Its "sound has gone out into all lands," and its "words unto the ends of the world." It has from the first had an objective existence, and has thrown itself upon the great concourse of men. Its home is in the world; and to know what it is, we must seek it in the world, and hear the world's witness of it.
|2. In recent times some thinkers have proposed that Christianity is defined just by whatever people make of it, as though it were not a historical reality. According to this way of thinking, Christianity must be merely a family of competing religious traditions with some loose thread of similarity, rather than a single thing with a common fundamental doctrine. Some have likewise proposed that all existing denominations of Christianity are wrong, that the original Teaching of Christ and His Apostles has been lost over time, either by gradual corruption or else a swift death in its early life, with a counterfeit version or versions emerging in its place. Others have gone far enough to say that Christianity has never even consisted of objective historical matter, but instead has always been just a compilation of diverse doctrines and practices, with elements drawn from outside, such as Oriental, Platonic, Pagan, Buddhist, and fringe sources. Still others suggest that there is in reality a true existence to Christianity, but that this real Christianity is hidden away in private, like a heartfelt conviction among the faithful, or else like a work of literature or private philosophical reflection, with no concrete point of attachment that can be investigated from outside, like so many other human musings about faith and morals.
|2. The hypothesis, indeed, has met with wide reception in these latter times, that Christianity does not fall within the province of history,—that it is to each man what each man thinks it to be, and nothing else; and thus in fact is a mere name for a cluster or family of rival religions all together, religions at variance one with another, and claiming the same appellation, not because there can be assigned any one and the same doctrine as the common foundation of all, but because certain points of agreement may be found here and there of some sort or other, by which each in its turn is connected with one or other of the rest. Or again, it has been maintained, or implied, that all existing denominations of Christianity are wrong, none representing it as taught by Christ and His Apostles; that the original religion has gradually decayed or become hopelessly corrupt; nay that it died out of the world at its birth, and was forthwith succeeded by a counterfeit or counterfeits which assumed its name, though they inherited at best but some fragments of its teaching; or rather that it cannot even be said either to have decayed or to have died, because historically it has no substance of its own, but from the first and onwards it has, on the stage of the world, been nothing more than a mere assemblage of doctrines and practices derived from without, from Oriental, Platonic, Polytheistic sources, from Buddhism, Essenism, Manicheeism; or that, allowing true Christianity still to exist, it has but a hidden and isolated life, in the hearts of the elect, or again as a literature or philosophy, not certified in any way, much less guaranteed, to come from above, but one out of the various separate informations about the Supreme Being and human duty, with which an unknown Providence has furnished us, whether in nature or in the world.
|3. All such views of Christianity contain the core idea that history cannot provide any meaningful contribution to our way of thinking about Christianity or judge our thoughts about it. But surely this core idea is not obvious and has to be proved. Unless there are good reasons suggesting otherwise, it is more natural and proper to assume that the Christians who came after the Apostles as their disciples believed the same religion which the Apostles themselves taught, as we would expect of a similar tradition. It is sensible to think, accordingly, that the external continuity of the name, profession, and communion of the Church through time demonstrates a real continuity in Her doctrine, that the Christianity which grew into the world through the ancient Church represented authentically the original Teaching, and that the men and women who played part in the Church in succeeding generations likewise inherited their identity and convictions from that authentic Teaching, as secured by grace attested to in prophecy. So I'm not making an assumption too far, but rather preventing us in this discussion from admitting too hastily such a frustrating and absurd skepticism as would follow if we sustained the views above. Yes, I propose to take it for granted that the Christianity of the second to the sixteenth centuries is substantially and truly the religion which Christ and His Apostles taught in the first century, however (for good or evil) it may have been modified peripherally over those years.
|3. All such views of Christianity imply that there is no sufficient body of historical proof to interfere with, or at least to prevail against, any number whatever of free and independent hypotheses concerning it. But this, surely, is not self-evident, and has itself to be proved. Till positive reasons grounded on facts are adduced to the contrary, the most natural hypotheses, the most agreeable to our mode of proceeding in parallel cases, and that which takes precedence of all others, is to consider that the society of Christians, which the Apostles left on earth, were of that religion to which the Apostles had converted them; that the external continuity of name, profession, and communion, argues a real continuity of doctrine; that, as Christianity began by manifesting itself as of a certain shape and bearing to all mankind, therefore it went on so to manifest itself; and that the more, considering that prophecy had already determined that it was to be a power visible in the world and sovereign over it, characters which are accurately fulfilled in that historical Christianity to which we commonly give the name. It is not a violent assumption, then, but rather mere abstinence from the wanton admission of a principle which would necessarily lead to the most vexatious and preposterous scepticism, to take it for granted, before proof to the contrary, that the Christianity of the second, fourth, seventh, twelfth, sixteenth, and intermediate centuries is in its substance the very religion which Christ and His Apostles taught in the first, whatever may be the modifications for good or for evil which lapse of years, or the vicissitudes of human affairs, have impressed upon it.
|Of course, I do not deny the theoretical possibility of extreme changes. It is certainly possible to imagine that a counterfeit Christianity corrupted gradually in times, places, and people, until the whole thing in its entirety was a corruption. Yes, if one begins with a spade, replaces the blade first, and then the handle, nothing is left of the original material, though the resulting form is similar to the original and emerged in continuity from the original. Such an entire corruption is possible, but it must not be assumed a priori. The burden of proof about this conviction lies with those who assert what is unnatural to expect. We do not have sufficient warrant for disbelieving just because we can doubt.
|Of course I do not deny the abstract possibility of extreme changes. The substitution is certainly, in idea, supposable of a counterfeit Christianity,—superseding the original, by means of the adroit innovations of seasons, places, and persons, till, according to the familiar illustration, the "blade" and the "handle" are alternately renewed, and identity is lost without the loss of continuity. It is possible; but it must not be assumed. The onus probandi is with those who assert what it is unnatural to expect; to be just able to doubt is no warrant for disbelieving.