In speaking of Constantine's expedition to Rome in the year 311, when there appeared supernaturally a cross above the sun, he says: "During the vicissitudes in the state, the church exhibits nothing peculiarly great. Among the common people there were doubtless many truly devoted in the spirit of their mind, and among them many that loved the divine Savior above life itself; but among the bishops and pastors nothing like what we saw in the past century. Indeed the principal events in the internal department of the church are rather more to its disgrace than its honor."
Speaking further of this time in another chapter he says: "The pagan temples were pulled down or converted into Christian churches: the exercise of the old priesthood was proscribed and the idols destroyed; elegant structures for Christian worship were raised, and those already erected, enlarged and beautified; the episcopacy was increased and honored with great favors and enriched with vast endowments; the ritual received many additions; the habiliments of the clergy were pompous, and the whole of the Christian service at once exhibited a scene of worldly grandeur and external parade. What a mighty change! But a short time since, and Christianity was held in sovereign contempt: now she is a favorite at court, and the companion of princes. Alas! such is the change, that it scarcely affords ground for triumph. The kingdom of our God and his Christ is become a kingdom of this world, and the church of Jesus reduced to a mere worldly sanctuary. The glory is departed, the gold is become dim, and the fine gold is changed.
"Indeed prelatical pride had been rising very high for a century before this. The pastors had forgotten their Master's instruction. 'Be ye not called Rabbi: for ye are brethren.' Lord bishops and archbishops and all the spirit of such distinction had been long enough upon the advance to congratulate such an emperor as Constantine. The materials for a hierarchy having been prepared it was no difficult thing for a set of worldly-minded bishops, countenanced by a prince, to put them together. Under all these circumstances, real religion was not likely to be bettered by such a reverse in external affairs, and so the event proved. The ancient contest, which was for the faith once delivered unto the saints, declined apace, and a strife for worldly honor, fleshly gratification, and spiritual dominion substituted in its stead."
Such was the true condition of things in the year 311. Surely there had been a change, the kingdom of God had become the kingdom of the world, the glory was gone, strivings for worldly honor, fleshly gratification, and spiritual dominion had taken the place of "striving for the faith once delivered to the saints." What a change from the humble, self-denying, flesh crucifying days of Christ and the apostles. Truly we can say sometime before this the morning light had dimmed and died, and darkness intervened. The historian does not fix this date (311) as the beginning of the dark noonday. (The reader already begins to see, no doubt, why it was dark at the noontime.) He says in a preceding chapter, "About A.D.264, a considerable stir was made by Paul of Samosata, bishop of Antioch. 'Great was the falling off in this church since the renowned Ignatius. The principles of Paul were exceedingly loose, and his practise was correspondent.' He rejected the divinity of the Son and substituted his own reason for the light of the Spirit. The way in which he lived fully proved that he was a man of the world."
The historian proceeds to tell more of this bishop's wicked life. The Scriptural qualifications of a bishop are, blamelessness, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behavior, given to hospitality, apt to teach; "not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous; one that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity." 1 Tim.3:3, 4. The seventh verse adds: "Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without." Such a bishop must be, in the very strictest sense, to be a light in the world. Here was a bishop, of perhaps the strongest Christian congregation in the world, almost everything to the contrary. How true the Savior's prophecy: "The moon shall not give her light, and the stars of heaven shall fall." Paul, of Samosata, became so wicked he was deposed from his office and became a "fallen star."
Sabine speaking of divisions and their causes says: "In this century the general church was rent in twain. This century also produced a train of other officers (beside bishops and deacons), such as subdeacons, who were all to the deacon what the presbyter was to the bishop; acolytes, persons to attend at service time on the ministers; ostiaries, doorkeepers; readers, men who were appointed to read the Scriptures in public; exorcists, officers of weak and superstitious appointment, whose business was to pretend to expel the devil from the candidate for baptism. All these encroachments and changes mark, strongly mark, a great decline in the spirit and power of primitive Christianity."
All of these things, and many more similar ones, were occurring in the latter part of the third century.
In the year of our Lord 248 Cyprian was ordained a presbyter in the church at Carthage. Ten years later he laid down his life for Jesus. It is said of him that he "displayed a benevolent and pious mind and evinced much of the character of the Christian pastor in the affectionate solicitude with which he watched over his flock." In epistle eleven he says: "It must be owned and confessed that the outrageous and heavy calamity which hath almost devoured our flock, and continues to devour it to this day, hath happened to us because of our sins, since we keep not the way of the Lord, nor observe his heavenly commands, which were designed to lead us to salvation. Christ our Lord fulfilled the will of the Father, but we neglect the will of Christ. Our principal study is to get money and estates; we follow after pride, we are at leisure for nothing but emulation and quarreling, and have neglected the simplicity of faith. We have renounced this world in words only, and not in deed. Every one studies to please himself and to displease others."
This account of professed Christianity at this time by Cyprian is confirmed by the testimony of Eusebius, who was nearly contemporary with him. "Through too much liberty they grew negligent and slothful, envying and reproaching one another, waging, as it were, civil wars among themselves, bishops quarreling with bishops, and the people divided into parties. Hypocrisy and deceit were grown to the highest pitch of wickedness. They were become so insensible as not so much as to think of appeasing the divine anger; but like atheists they thought the world destitute of any providential government and care, and thus added one crime to another. The bishops themselves had thrown off all concern about religion, were perpetually contending with one another, and did nothing but quarrel with and threaten and envy and hate one another: they were full of ambition and tyrannically used their power." -- Eusebius' History, Book VIII, Chap. I, as quoted in Jones' Church History.
Ruter's Church History. (Third Century.)
"With the opinions, the Christian teachers had adopted the habits and manners of the philosophic school. They assumed the dress of the pompous sophist, and delivered the plain doctrines of the gospel with strained and studied eloquence."
"This season of external prosperity was improved by the ministers of the church for the exertion of new claims and the assumption of powers with which they had not previously been invested." -- p.52.
"Several alterations in the form of church government appear to have been introduced during the third century. Some degree of pomp was thought necessary to render so singular an institution respectable to the minds of a gross multitude who are only capable of judging from external appearances. As their numbers increased their labors became proportionally greater, and it was necessary to provide assistance and more agreeable to good order to assign to each his proper function. Inferior ministers were therefore instituted, who derived their appellations from the office they filled.
"These ministers probably derived their emoluments, not merely from the precarious bounty of the society, but from a certain proportion of the fixed revenues of the church. The principal of them had obtained before the close of this century the possession of several considerable estates, which had been bequeathed or presented to the church. The external dignity of the ministers of religion was accompanied by a still greater change in its discipline. The simple rules prescribed by the apostles for the preservation of good order in the church branched out into so many luxuriant shoots that it was difficult to recognize the parent stem." -- p.53.
"A regular form of discipline began to take place during the third century in every matter which fell within the cognizance of the church." p.51.
Following this, Ruter gives an account of the penitents seeking salvation who had to proceed step by step. The first degree was to prostrate themselves in the avenues of the church building. Here they were called flentes. In the second degree they were allowed to enter the building and hear the sermon. Here they were called audientes. In the third degree they were allowed to unite in prayers offered in their own behalf. Here they were called genuflectentes. In the fourth degree they were allowed to approach the altar and were called consistentes. In the taking of these degrees the penitents were compelled to appear in sackcloth and ashes, and in some places the men were obliged to shave their heads and the women to wear veils. The duration of their penitence was regulated by the bishop. He could make the time of taking these degrees short, or extend it to any length. This was called an indulgence.
This is shocking in the extreme. Where in the humble acts of Jesus and his apostles do you hear of such an order of things? Truly at this time the sun was darkened, and the moon did not give her light, and the stars had fallen. How true now appears the prophecy of Isaiah: "The people of thy holiness have possessed it but a little while: our adversaries have trodden down thy sanctuary." Isa.63:18. Jesus says, "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon the earth," and Paul says to the bishop to be "not greedy of filthy lucre"; and Peter says, "Taking the oversight not for filthy lucre's sake" -- and here before the close of the third century we find the bishops coming into possession of large estates through the revenues of the church, and as Cyprian has said of the bishops of this time, "Our principal study is to get money and estates."
We have before us Mosheim's Church History. In speaking of the internal history of the church in the third century he says that "the bishops of Rome, Antioch and Alexandria had a kind of preeminence over all others, and particularly the bishop at Rome." There was a change in the form of government and this change was followed by a train of vices. "Many of those who had the administration of the church affairs were sunk," he says, "in luxury and voluptuousness, puffed up with vanity, arrogance and ambition; possessed with a spirit of contention and discord. They appropriated to their evangelical function the splendid ensigns of temporal majesty: a throne, surrounded with ministers, exalted above his equals, the servant of the meek and humble Jesus.... The titles of subdeacons, acolythi, ostairii, readers, exorcists, copiatae, would never have been heard of in the church if its rulers had been assiduously and zealously employed in promoting the interest of truth and piety by their labors and their example." He gives an account of the trouble in the church of Rome between Cornelius and Novatian, in the year 250, who were aspirants for the Roman See.
Eusebius tells of the increasing vices, schisms, quarrelings of the bishops, of their greed for money and preeminence in the last half of the third century. In speaking of the bishops and pastors who had the administration of church government in the year 260, he says: "But some that appeared to be our pastors, deserting the law of piety, were inflamed against each other with mutual strifes, only accumulating quarrels and threats, rivalship, hostility and hatred to each other, only anxious to assert the government as a kind of sovereignty for themselves." Then he adds, "As Jeremiah says, 'The Lord in his anger darkened the daughter of Sion [the church or moon], and hurled from heaven to earth the glory of Israel.' "
By this we learn that Eusebius would place the darkening of the church, or the beginning of the dark noonday, near the year 260 A.D. Quotations could be transcribed from Coleman, Marsh, Waddington and others, in which they all place the close of the morning light and the rise of the apostasy or dark noonday between the years 260 and 280 A.D. To our knowledge, Joseph Milner is the only non-contemporary historian that fixes the date to any definite time. He says, "I know it is common for authors to represent the great declension of Christianity to have taken place only after its external establishment under Constantine. But the evidence of history has compelled me to dissent from this view of things. In fact we have seen that for a whole generation previous to the persecution, few marks of superior piety appeared. Scarce a luminary of godliness existed, and it is not common in any age for a great work of the Spirit of God to be exhibited but under the conduct of some remarkable saint, pastor and reformers. This whole period as well as the whole scene of the persecution is very barren of such characters. Not but that many precious children of God suffered in much patience and charity. But those who suffered with very much of a different spirit, found no pastor to discountenance their self-will and false zeal: a sure sign that the true spirit of martyrdom was less pure than it had formerly been. Moreover the prevalence of superstition on the one hand, and the decay of evangelical knowledge on the other, are equally apparent. Christ crucified, justification purely by faith, and the effectual influences of the Holy Ghost, ... were ideas at least very faintly impressed at that day on Christian minds. It is vain to expect Christian faith to abound without Christian doctrine. Moral and philosophical and monastical instructions will not effect for men what is expected from evangelical doctrine. And if the faith of Christ was so much declined (and its decayed state ought to be dated from about the year 270) we need not wonder that such scenes as Eusebius hints at without any circumstantial detail took place in the Christian world." -- Century IV, p.31.
After searching history we find no objection in making use of the year 270 A.D. as the date of the beginning of the dark noontime. Milner says at this time, "Scarcely a luminary of godliness existed. The great luminaries, or lights, were eclipsed and darkness reigned. Some of our contemporary writers have fixed upon this year as the date of the rise of the beast power, which created this darkness." "The real papacy was set up, not at the Nicene Council, A.D.325, as some affirm; but we find vivid traces of the very same beast authority as early as A.D.270." -- Biblical Trace of the Church. In the city of Nice in Bithynia, A.D.325, was held what is called "The First General Council." There was present at this council the Emperor Constantine, as the historian says, "Like an angel of God exceeding all his attendants in size, gracefulness and strength, and dazzling all eyes by the splendor of his dress, showing the greatest humility, seated in a chair covered with gold." There were present at this meeting three hundred and eighteen bishops, and a number of deacons and subdeacons, amounting in all to two thousand and forty-eight persons. Here was drawn up a creed, declaring to be the only true and orthodox faith. It bears the title of Nicene. This creed was at once confirmed at Rome by two hundred and seventy-five bishops, and was the setting up of the Roman hierarchy. This council can not however with propriety be said to be the true setting up of the beast power. Nearly all the forms and doctrines of this creed had been observed and taught by the bishops and pastors for several decades. The most sensible date, and most consistent with revelation, for the bringing in of the dark noontime of the gospel day is A.D.270. We feel confident that no one can rightfully object to us making use of this date for this work. Those who do so must do it through prejudice or ignorance.