There are two great rivers of Europe which, in their course, offer a not uninstructive analogy to the Church of God. The Rhine and the Rhone both take their rise from mountain glaciers, and for the first hundred or hundred and fifty miles from their sources they run turbid as glacier streams always are, and for the most part turbulent as mountain torrents. Then they enter the great lakes of Constance and Geneva. There, as in vast settling-vats, they deposit all the discolouring elements which have hitherto defiled their waters, so that when they re-emerge from the western ends of the lakes to run their courses in central and southern Europe their waters have a translucent purity altogether delightful to contemplate. After this the two rivers have very different destinies, but either from fouler affluents or from the commercial activity upon their surfaces or along their banks they lose the purity which characterized their second birth, and become as foul as ever they were among their earlier mountain fastnesses; till after all vicissitudes they lose themselves to north or south in the vast and cleansing sea.
The history of these rivers offers, I say, a remarkable parallel to the history of the Church of God. For that too takes its rude and rough beginnings high up in wild and remote fastnesses of our human history. Such books of the Old Testament as those of Judges and Samuel and Kings represent the turbid and turbulent running of this human nature of ours, divinely directed indeed, but still unpurified and unregenerate. But in the great lake of the humanity of Jesus all its acquired pollution is cut off. In Him, virgin-born, our manhood is seen as indeed the pure mirror of the divine glory; and when at Pentecost the Church of God issues anew, by a second birth of that glorified manhood, for its second course in this world, it issues unmixed with alien influences, substantially pure and unsullied. After a time its history gains in complexity but its character loses in purity, so that there are epochs of the history of the Church when its moral level is possibly not higher than that which is represented in the roughest books of the Old Testament: and through the whole of its later history the Church is strangely fused with the world again, until they issue both together into eternity.
Men from all parts of the world visit Constance and Geneva, and delight to look at the two famous rivers issuing pure and abundant from the quiet lakes. An analogous pleasure belongs to the study of such books of the New Testament as the Acts of the Apostles and St. Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians, which give us respectively the fortunes and the theory of the Church at its origin. Later epochs of Church history have possibly more richly diversified interests—such as the period of the Councils, or the Middle Ages, or the Reformation. But the interest of the earliest Church unmixed with the world, its principles fresh, its inspirations strong, its native hue free from discolouring elements, preoccupies us with a fascination which is unrivalled....