|John Henry Newman
The Arians of the Fourth Century
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The Arians of the Fourth Century
Section 3: The Church of Alexandria
As the Church of Antioch was exposed to the influence of Judaism, so was the Alexandrian Church characterized in primitive times by its attachment to that comprehensive philosophy, which was reduced to system about the beginning of the third century, and then went by the name of the New Platonic, or Eclectic. A supposed resemblance between the Arian and the Eclectic doctrine concerning the Holy Trinity, has led to a common notion that the Alexandrian Fathers were the medium by which a philosophical error was introduced into the Church; and this hypothetical cause of a disputable resemblance has been apparently evidenced by the solitary fact, which cannot be denied, that Arius himself was a presbyter of Alexandria. We have already seen, however, that Arius was educated at Antioch; and we shall see hereafter that, so far from being favourably heard at Alexandria, he was, on the first promulgation of his heresy, expelled the Church in that city, and obliged to seek refuge among his Collucianists of Syria. And it is manifestly the opinion of Athanasius, that he was but the pupil or the tool of deeper men, probably of Eusebius of Nicomedia, who in no sense belongs to Alexandria. But various motives have led theological writers to implicate this celebrated Church in the charge of heresy. Infidels have felt a satisfaction, and heretics have had an interest, in representing that the most learned Christian community did not submit implicitly to the theology taught in Scripture and by the Church; a conclusion, which, even if substantiated, would little disturb the enlightened defender of Christianity, who may safely admit that learning, though a powerful instrument of the truth in right hands, is no unerring guide into it. The Romanists, on the other hand, have thought by the same line of policy to exalt the Apostolical purity of their own Church, by the contrast of unfaithfulness in its early rival; and (what is of greater importance) to insinuate both the necessity of an infallible authority, by exaggerating the errors and contrarieties of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, and the fact of its existence, by throwing us, for exactness of doctrinal statement, upon the decisions of the subsequent Councils. In the following pages, I hope to clear the illustrious Church in question of the grave imputation thus directed against her from opposite quarters: the imputation of considering the Son of God by nature inferior to the Father, that is, of platonizing or arianizing. But I have no need to profess myself her disciple, though, as regards the doctrine in debate, I might well do so; and, instead of setting about any formal defence, I will merely place before the reader the general principles of her teaching, and leave it to him to apply them, as far as he judges they will go, in explanation of the language, which has been the ground of the suspicions against her.
St. Mark, the founder of the Alexandrian Church, may be numbered among the personal friends and associates of that Apostle, who held it to be his especial office to convert the heathen; an office, which was impressed upon the community formed by the Evangelist, with a strength and permanence unknown in the other primitive Churches. The Alexandrian may peculiarly be called the Missionary and Polemical Church of Antiquity. Situated in the centre of the accessible world, and on the extremity of Christendom, in a city which was at once the chief mart of commerce, and a celebrated seat of both Jewish and Greek philosophy, it was supplied in especial abundance, both with materials and instruments prompting to the exercise of Christian zeal. Its catechetical school, founded (it is said) by the Evangelist himself, was a pattern to other Churches in its diligent and systematic preparation of candidates for baptism; while other institutions were added of a controversial character, for the purpose of carefully examining into the doctrines revealed in Scripture, and of cultivating the habit of argument and disputation. While the internal affairs of the community were administered by its bishops, on these academical bodies, as subsidiary to the divinely-sanctioned system, devolved the defence and propagation of the faith, under the presidency of laymen or inferior ecclesiastics. Athenagoras, the first recorded master of the catechetical school, is known by his defence of the Christians, still extant, addressed to the Emperor Marcus. Pantćnus, who succeeded him, was sent by Demetrius, at that time bishop, as missionary to the Indians or Arabians. Origen, who was soon after appointed catechist at the early age of eighteen, had already given the earnest of his future celebrity, by his persuasive disputations with the unbelievers of Alexandria. Afterwards he appeared in the character of a Christian apologist before an Arabian prince, and Mammća, the mother of Alexander Severus, and addressed letters on the subject of religion to the Emperor Philip and his wife Severa; and he was known far and wide in his day, for his indefatigable zeal and ready services in the confutation of heretics, for his various controversial and critical writings, and for the number and dignity of his converts.
Proselytism, then, in all its branches, the apologetic, the polemical, and the didactic, being the peculiar function of the Alexandrian Church, it is manifest that the writings of its theologians would partake largely of an exoteric character. I mean, that such men would write, not with the openness of Christian familiarity, but with the tenderness or the reserve with which we are accustomed to address those who do not sympathize with us, or whom we fear to mislead or to prejudice against the truth, by precipitate disclosures of its details. The example of the inspired writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews was their authority for making a broad distinction between the doctrines suitable to the state of the weak and ignorant, and those which are the peculiar property of a baptized and regenerate Christian. The Apostle in that Epistle, when speaking of the most sacred Christian verities, as hidden under the allegories of the Old Testament, seems suddenly to check himself, from the apprehension that he was divulging mysteries beyond the understanding of his brethren; who, instead of being masters in Scripture doctrine, were not yet versed even in its elements, needed the nourishment of children rather than of grown men, nay, perchance, having quenched the illumination of baptism, had forfeited the capacity of comprehending even the first elements of the truth. In the same place he enumerates these elements, or foundation of Christian teaching, in contrast with the esoteric doctrines which the “long-exercised habit of moral discernment” can alone appropriate and enjoy, as follows;—repentance, faith in God, the doctrinal meaning of the rite of baptism, confirmation as the channel of miraculous gifts, the future resurrection, and the final separation of good and bad. His first Epistle to the Corinthians contains the same distinction between the carnal or imperfect and the established Christian, which is laid down in that addressed to the Hebrews. While maintaining that in Christianity is contained a largeness of wisdom, or (to use human language) a profound philosophy, fulfilling those vague conceptions of greatness, which had led the aspiring intellect of the heathen sages to shadow forth their unreal systems, he at the same time insists upon the impossibility of man’s arriving at this hidden treasure all at once, and warns his brethren, instead of attempting to cross by a short path from the false to the true knowledge, to humble themselves to the low and narrow portal of the heavenly temple, and to become fools, that they might at length be really wise. As before, he speaks of the difference of doctrine suited respectively to neophytes and confirmed Christians, under the analogy of the difference of food proper for the old and young; a difference which lies, not in the arbitrary will of the dispenser, but in the necessity of the case, the more sublime truths of Revelation affording no nourishment to the souls of the unbelieving or unstable.
Accordingly, in the system of the early catechetical schools, the perfect, or men in Christ, were such as had deliberately taken upon them the profession of believers; had made the vows, and received the grace of baptism; and were admitted to all the privileges and the revelations of which the Church had been constituted the dispenser. But before reception into this full discipleship, a previous season of preparation, from two to three years, was enjoined, in order to try their obedience, and instruct them in the principles of revealed truth. During this introductory discipline, they were called Catechumens, and the teaching itself Catechetical, from the careful and systematic examination by which their grounding in the faith was effected. The matter of the instruction thus communicated to them, varied with the time of their discipleship, advancing from the most simple principle of Natural Religion to the peculiar doctrines of the Gospel, from moral truths to the Christian mysteries. On their first admission they were denominated hearers, from the leave granted them to attend the reading of the Scriptures and sermons in the Church. Afterwards, being allowed to stay during the prayers, and receiving the imposition of hands as the sign of their progress in spiritual knowledge, they were called worshippers. Lastly, some short time before their baptism, they were taught the Lord’s Prayer (the peculiar privilege of the regenerate), were entrusted with the knowledge of the Creed, and, as destined for incorporation into the body of believers, received the titles of competent or elect. Even to the last, they were granted nothing beyond a formal and general account of the articles of the Christian faith; the exact and fully developed doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, and still more, the doctrine of the Atonement, as once made upon the cross, and commemorated and appropriated in the Eucharist, being the exclusive possession of the serious and practised Christian. On the other hand, the chief subjects of catechisings, as we learn from Cyril, were the doctrines of repentance and pardon, of the necessity of good works, of the nature and use of baptism, and the immortality of the soul;—as the Apostle had determined them.
The exoteric teaching, thus observed in the Catechetical Schools, was still more appropriate, when the Christian teacher addressed himself, not to the instruction of willing hearers, but to controversy or public preaching. At the present day, there are very many sincere Christians, who consider that the evangelical doctrines are the appointed instruments of conversion, and, as such, exclusively attended with the Divine blessing. In proof of this position, with an inconsistency remarkable in those who profess a jealous adherence to the inspired text, and are not slow to accuse others of ignorance of its contents, they appeal, not to Scripture, but to the stirring effects of this (so-called) Gospel preaching, and to the inefficiency, on the other hand, of mere exhortations respecting the benevolence and mercy of God, the necessity of repentance, the rights of conscience, and the obligation of obedience. But it is scarcely the attribute of a generous faith, to be anxiously inquiring into the consequences of this or that system, with a view to decide its admissibility, instead of turning at once to the revealed word, and inquiring into the rule there exhibited to us. God can defend and vindicate His own command, whatever it turn out to be; weak though it seem to our vain wisdom, and unworthy of the Giver; and that His course in this instance is really that which the hasty religionist condemns as if the theory of unenlightened formalists, is evident to careful students of Scripture, and is confirmed by the practice of the Primitive Church.
As to Scripture, I shall but observe, in addition to the remarks already made on the passages in the Epistles to the Corinthians and Hebrews, that no one sanction can be adduced thence, whether of precept or of example, in behalf of the practice of stimulating the affections, such as gratitude or remorse, by means of the doctrine of the Atonement, in order to the conversion of the hearers;—that, on the contrary, it is its uniform method to connect the Gospel with Natural Religion, and to mark out obedience to the moral law as the ordinary means of attaining to a Christian faith, the higher evangelical truths, as well as the Eucharist, which is the visible emblem of them, being received as the reward and confirmation of habitual piety;—that, in the preaching of the Apostles and Evangelists in the Book of Acts, the sacred mysteries are revealed to individuals in proportion to their actual religious proficiency; that the first principles of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come, are urged upon Felix; while the elders of Ephesus are reminded of the divinity and vicarious sacrifice of Christ, and the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the Church;—lastly, that among those converts, who were made the chief instruments of the first propagation of the Gospel, or who are honoured with especial favour in Scripture, none are found who had not been faithful to the light already given them, and were not distinguished, previously to their conversion, by a strictly conscientious deportment. Such are the divine notices given to those who desire an apostolical rule for dispensing the word of life; and as such, the ancient Fathers received them. They received them as the fulfilment of our Lord’s command, not to give that which is holy to dogs, nor to cast pearls before swine; a text cited by Clement and Tertullian, among others, in justification of their cautious distribution of sacred truth. They also considered this caution as the result of the most truly charitable consideration for those whom they addressed, who were likely to be perplexed, not converted, by the sudden exhibition of the whole evangelical scheme. This is the doctrine of Theodoret, Chrysostom, and others, in their comments upon the passage in the Epistle to the Hebrews. “Should a catechumen ask thee what the teachers have determined, (says Cyril of Jerusalem) tell nothing to one who is without. For we impart to thee a secret and a promise of the world to come. Keep safe the secret for Him who gives the reward. Listen not to one who asks, ‘What harm is there in my knowing also?’ Even the sick ask for wine, which, unseasonably given, brings on delirium; and so there come two ills, the death of the patient and the disrepute of the physician.” In another place he says, “All may hear the Gospel, but the glory of the Gospel is set apart for the true disciples of Christ. To all who could hear, the Lord spake, but in parables; to His disciples He privately explained them. What is the blaze of Divine glory to the enlightened, is the blinding of unbelievers. These are the secrets which the Church unfolds to him who passes on from the catechumens, and not to the heathen. For we do not unfold to a heathen the truths concerning Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; nay, not even in the case of catechumens, do we clearly explain the mysteries, but we frequently say many things indirectly, so that believers who have been taught may understand, and the others may not be injured.”
The work of St. Clement, of Alexandria, called Stromateis, or Tapestry-work, from the variety of its contents, well illustrates the Primitive Church’s method of instruction, as far as regards the educated portion of the community. It had the distinct object of interesting and conciliating the learned heathen who perused it; but it also exemplifies the peculiar caution then adopted by Christians in teaching the truth,—their desire to rouse the moral powers to internal voluntary action, and their dread of loading or formalizing the mind. In the opening of his work, Clement speaks of his miscellaneous discussions as mingling truth with philosophy; “or rather,” he continues, “involving and concealing it, as the shell hides the edible fruit of the nut.” In another place he compares them, not to a fancy garden, but to some thickly-wooded mountain, where vegetation of every sort, growing promiscuously, by its very abundance conceals from the plunderer the fruit trees, which are intended for the rightful owner. “We must hide,” he says, “that wisdom, spoken in mystery, which the Son of God has taught us. Thus the Prophet Esaias has his tongue cleansed with fire, that he may be able to declare the vision; and our ears must be sanctified as well as our tongues, if we aim at being recipients of the truth. This was a hindrance to my writing; and still I have anxiety, since Scripture says, ‘Cast not your pearls before swine’; for those pure and bright truths, which are so marvellous and full of God to goodly natures, do but provoke laughter, when spoken in the hearing of the many.” The Fathers considered that they had the pattern as well as the recommendation of this method of teaching in Scripture itself.
This self-restraint and abstinence, practised at least partially, by the Primitive Church in the publication of the most sacred doctrines of our religion, is termed, in theological language, the Disciplina Arcani; concerning which a few remarks may here be added, not so much in recommendation of it (which is beside my purpose), as to prevent misconception of its principle and limits.
Now, first, it may be asked, How was any secrecy practicable, seeing that the Scriptures were open to every one who chose to consult them? It may startle those who are but acquainted with the popular writings of this day, yet, I believe, the most accurate consideration of the subject will lead us to acquiesce in the statement, as a general truth, that the doctrines in question have never been learned merely from Scripture. Surely the Sacred Volume was never intended, and is not adapted, to teach us our creed; however certain it is that we can prove our creed from it, when it has once been taught us, and in spite of individual producible exceptions to the general rule. From the very first, that rule has been, as a matter of fact, that the Church should teach the truth, and then should appeal to Scripture in vindication of its own teaching. And from the first, it has been the error of heretics to neglect the information thus provided for them, and to attempt of themselves a work to which they are unequal, the eliciting a systematic doctrine from the scattered notices of the truth which Scripture contains. Such men act, in the solemn concerns of religion, the part of the self-sufficient natural philosopher, who should obstinately reject Newton’s theory of gravitation, and endeavour, with talents inadequate to the task, to strike out some theory of motion by himself. The insufficiency of the mere private study of Holy Scripture for arriving at the exact and entire truth which Scripture really contains, is shown by the fact, that creeds and teachers have ever been divinely provided, and by the discordance of opinions which exists wherever those aids are thrown aside; as it is also shown by the very structure of the Bible itself. And if this be so, it follows that, while inquirers and neophytes in the first centuries lawfully used the inspired writings for the purposes of morals and for instruction in the rudiments of the faith, they still might need the teaching of the Church as a key to the collection of passages which related to the mysteries of the Gospel, passages which are obscure from the necessity of combining and receiving them all.
A more plausible objection to the existence of this rule of secrecy in the Early Church arises from the circumstance, that the Christian Apologists openly mention to the whole world the sacred tenets which have been above represented as the peculiar possession of the confirmed believer. But it must be observed, that the writers of these were frequently laymen, and so did not commit the Church as a body, nor even in its separate authorities, to formal statement or to theological discussion. The great duty of the Christian teacher was to unfold the sacred truths in due order, and not prematurely to insist on the difficulties, or to apply the promises of the Gospel; and if others erred in this respect, still it remained a duty to him. And further, these disclosures are not so conclusive as they seem to be at first sight; the approximations of philosophy, and the corruptions of heresy, being so considerable, as to create a confusion concerning the precise character of the ecclesiastical doctrine. Besides, in matter of fact, some of the early apologists themselves, as Tatian, were tainted with heretical opinions.
But in truth, it is not the actual practice of the Primitive Church, which I am concerned with, so much as its principle. Men often break through the rules, which they set themselves for the conduct of life, with or without good reason. If it was the professed principle of the early teachers, to speak exoterically to those who were without the Church, instances of a contrary practice but prove their inconsistency; whereas the fact of the existence of the principle answers the purpose which is the ultimate aim of these remarks, viz. it accounts for those instances in the teaching of the Alexandrians, whether many or few, and whether extant or not in writing, in which they were silent as regards the mysterious doctrines of Christianity. Indeed it is evident, that anyhow the Disciplina Arcani could not be observed for any long time in the Church. Apostates would reveal its doctrines, even if these escaped in no other way. Perhaps it was almost abandoned, as far as men of letters were concerned, after the date of Ammonius; indeed there are various reasons for limiting its strict enforcement to the end of the second century. And it is plain, that during the time when the sacred doctrines were passing into the stock of public knowledge, Christian controversialists would be in a difficulty how to conduct themselves, what to deny, explain or complete, in the popular notions of their creed; and they would consequently be betrayed into inconsistencies of statement, and vary in their method of disputing.
The Disciplina Arcani being supposed, with these limitations, to have had a real existence, I observe further, in explanation of its principle, that the elementary information given to the heathen or catechumen was in no sense undone by the subsequent secret teaching, which was in fact but the filling up of a bare but correct outline. The contrary theory was maintained by the Manichees, who represented the initiatory discipline as founded on a fiction or hypothesis, which was to be forgotten by the learner as he made progress in the real doctrine of the gospel; somewhat after the manner of a school in the present day, which supposes conversion to be effected by an exhibition of free promises and threats, and an appeal to our moral capabilities, which after conversion are discovered to have no foundation in fact. But “Far be it from so great an Apostle,” says Augustine, speaking of St. Paul, “a vessel elect of God, an organ of the Holy Ghost, to be one man when he preached, another when he wrote, one man in private, another in public. He was made all to all men, not by the craft of a deceiver, but from the affection of a sympathizer, succouring the diverse diseases of souls with the diverse emotions of compassion; to the little ones dispensing the lesser doctrines, not false ones, but the higher mysteries to the perfect, all of them, however, true, harmonious, and divine.”
Next, the truths reserved for the baptized Christian were not put forward as the arbitrary determinations of individuals, as the word of man, but rather as an apostolical legacy, preserved and dispensed by the Church. Thus Irenćus when engaged in refuting the heretics of his age, who appealed from the text of Scripture to a sense independent of it, as the test between truth and falsehood in its contents, says, “We know the doctrine of our salvation through none but those who have transmitted to us the gospel, first proclaiming it, then (by God’s will) delivering it to us in the Scriptures, as a basis and pillar of our faith. Nor dare we affirm that their announcements were made previously to their attaining perfect knowledge, as some presume to say, boasting that they set right the Apostles.” He then proceeds to speak of the clearness and cogency of the traditions preserved in the Church, as containing that true wisdom of the perfect, of which St. Paul speaks, and to which the Gnostics pretended. And, indeed, without formal proofs of the existence and the authority in primitive times of an Apostolical Tradition, it is plain that there must have been such tradition, granting that the Apostles conversed, and their friends had memories, like other men. It is quite inconceivable that they should not have been led to arrange the series of revealed doctrines more systematically than they record them in Scripture, as soon as their converts became exposed to the attacks and misrepresentations of heretics; unless they were forbidden so to do, a supposition which cannot be maintained. Their statements thus occasioned would be preserved, as a matter of course; together with those other secret but less important truths, to which St. Paul seems to allude, and which the early writers more or less acknowledge, whether concerning the types of the Jewish Church, or the prospective fortunes of the Christian. And such recollections of apostolical teaching would evidently be binding on the faith of those who were instructed in them; unless it can be supposed, that, though coming from inspired teachers, they were not of divine origin.
However, it must not be supposed, that this appeal to Tradition in the slightest degree disparages the sovereign authority and sufficiency of Holy Scripture, as a record of the truth. In the passage from Irenćus above cited, Apostolical Tradition is brought forward, not to supersede Scripture, but in conjunction with Scripture, to refute the self-authorized, arbitrary doctrines of the heretics. We must cautiously distinguish, with that Father, between a tradition supplanting or perverting the inspired records, and a corroborating, illustrating, and altogether subordinate tradition. It is of the latter that he speaks, classing the traditionary and the written doctrine together, as substantially one and the same, and as each equally opposed to the profane inventions of Valentinus and Marcion.
Lastly, the secret tradition soon ceased to exist even in theory. It was authoritatively divulged, and perpetuated in the form of symbols according as the successive innovations of heretics called for its publication. In the creeds of the early Councils, it may be considered as having come to light, and so ended; so that whatever has not been thus authenticated, whether it was prophetical information, or comment on the past dispensations, is, from the circumstances of the case, lost to the Church. What, however, was then (by God’s good providence) seasonably preserved, is in some sense of apostolical authority still; and at least serves the chief office of the early traditions, viz. that of interpreting and harmonizing the statements of Scripture.
In the passages lately quoted from Clement and Cyril, mention was made by those writers of a mode of speaking, which was intelligible to the well-instructed, but conveyed no definite meaning to ordinary hearers. This was the Allegorical Method; which well deserves our attention before we leave the subject of the Disciplina Arcani, as being one chief means by which it was observed. The word allegorizing must here be understood in a wide signification; as including in its meaning, not only the representation of truths, under a foreign, though analogous exterior, after the manner of our Lord’s parables, but the practice of generalizing facts into principles, of adumbrating greater truths under the image of lesser, of implying the consequences or the basis of doctrines in their correlatives, and altogether those instances of thinking, reasoning, and teaching, which depend upon the use of propositions which are abstruse, and of connexions which are obscure, and which, in the case of uninspired authors, we consider profound, or poetical, or enthusiastic, or illogical, according to our opinion of those by whom they are exhibited.
This method of writing was the national peculiarity of that literature in which the Alexandrian Church was educated. The hieroglyphics of the ancient Egyptians mark the antiquity of a practice, which, in a later age, being enriched and diversified by the genius of their Greek conquerors, was applied as a key both to mythological legends, and to the sacred truths of Scripture. The Stoics were the first to avail themselves of an expedient which smoothed the deformities of the Pagan creed. The Jews, and then the Christians, of Alexandria, employed it in the interpretation of the inspired writings. Those writings themselves have certainly an allegorical structure, and seem to countenance and invite an allegorical interpretation; and in consequence, they have been referred by some critics to one and the same heathen origin, as if Moses first, and then St. Paul, borrowed their symbolical system respectively from the Egyptian and the Alexandrian philosophy.
But it is more natural to consider that the Divine Wisdom used on the sublimest of all subjects, media, which we spontaneously select for the expression of solemn thought and elevated emotion; and had no especial regard to the practice in any particular country, which afforded but one instance of the operation of a general principle of our nature. When the mind is occupied by some vast and awful subject of contemplation, it is prompted to give utterance to its feelings in a figurative style; for ordinary words will not convey the admiration, nor literal words the reverence which possesses it; and when, dazzled at length with the great sight, it turns away for relief, it still catches in every new object which it encounters, glimpses of its former vision, and colours its whole range of thought with this one abiding association. If, however, others have preceded it in the privilege of such contemplations, a well-disciplined piety will lead it to adopt the images which they have invented, both from affection for what is familiar to it, and from a fear of using unsanctioned language on a sacred subject. Such are the feelings under which a deeply impressed mind addresses itself to the task of disclosing even its human thoughts; and this account of it, if we may dare to conjecture, in its measure applies to the case of a mind under the immediate influence of inspiration. Certainly, the matter of Revelation suggests some such hypothetical explanation of the structure of the books which are its vehicle; in which the divinely-instructed imagination of the writers is ever glancing to and fro, connecting past things with future, illuminating God’s lower providences and man’s humblest services by allusions to the relations of the evangelical covenant, and then in turn suddenly leaving the latter to dwell upon those past dealings of God with man, which must not be forgotten merely because they have been excelled. No prophet ends his subject: his brethren after him renew, enlarge, transfigure, or reconstruct it; so that the Bible, though various in its parts, forms a whole, grounded on a few distinct doctrinal principles discernible throughout it; and is in consequence intelligible indeed in its general drift, but obscure in its text; and even tempts the student, if I may so speak, to a lax and disrespectful interpretation of it. History is made the external garb of prophecy, and persons and facts become the figures of heavenly things. I need only refer, by way of instance, to the delineation of Abraham as the type of the accepted worshipper of God; to the history of the brazen serpent; to the prophetical bearing of the “call of Israel out of Egypt”; to the personification of the Church in the Apostolic Epistles as the reflected image of Christ; and, further, to the mystical import, interpreted by our Lord Himself, of the title of God as the God of the Patriarchs. Above all other subjects, it need scarcely be said, the likeness of the promised Mediator is conspicuous throughout the sacred volume as in a picture: moving along the line of the history, in one or other of His destined offices, the dispenser of blessings in Joseph, the inspired interpreter of truth in Moses, the conqueror in Joshua, the active preacher in Samuel, the suffering combatant in David, and in Solomon the triumphant and glorious king.
Moreover, Scripture assigns the same uses to this allegorical style, which were contemplated by the Fathers when they made it subservient to the Disciplina Arcani; viz. those of trying the earnestness and patience of inquirers, discriminating between the proud and the humble, and conveying instruction to believers, and that in the most permanently impressive manner, without the world’s sharing in the knowledge. Our Lord’s remarks on the design of his own parables, is a sufficient evidence of this intention.
Thus there seemed every encouragement, from the structure of Scripture, from the apparent causes which led to that structure, and from the purposes to which it was actually applied by its Divine Author, to induce the Alexandrians to consider its text as primarily and directly the instrument of an allegorical teaching. And since it sanctions the principle of allegorizing by its own example, they would not consider themselves confined within the limits of the very instances which it supplies, because of the evident spiritual drift of various passages which, nevertheless, it does not interpret spiritually; thus to the narrative contained in the twenty-second chapter of Genesis, few people will deny an evangelical import, though the New Testament itself nowhere assigns it. Yet, on the other hand, granting that a certain liberty of interpretation, beyond the precedent, but according to the spirit of Scripture, be allowable in the Christian teacher, still few people will deny, that some rule is necessary as a safeguard against its abuse, in order to secure the sacred text from being explained away by the heretic, and misquoted and perverted by weak or fanatical minds. Such a safeguard we shall find in bearing cautiously in mind this consideration: viz. that (as a general rule), every passage of Scripture has some one definite and sufficient sense, which was prominently before the mind of the writer, or in the intention of the Blessed Spirit, and to which all other ideas, though they might arise, or be implied, still were subordinate. It is this true meaning of the text, which it is the business of the expositor to unfold. This it is, which every diligent student will think it a great gain to discover; and, though he will not shut his eyes to the indirect and instructive applications of which the text is capable, he never will so reason as to forget that there is one sense peculiarly its own. Sometimes it is easily ascertained, sometimes it can be scarcely conjectured; sometimes it is contained in the literal sense of the words employed, as in the historical parts; sometimes it is the allegorical, as in our Lord’s parables; or sometimes the secondary sense may be more important in after ages than the original, as in the instance of the Jewish ritual; still in all cases (to speak generally) there is but one main primary sense, whether literal or figurative; a regard for which must ever keep us sober and reverent in the employment of those allegorisms, which, nevertheless, our Christian liberty does not altogether forbid.
The protest of Scripture against all careless expositions of its meaning, is strikingly implied in the extreme reserve and caution, with which it unfolds its own typical signification; for instance, in the Mosaic ritual no hint was given of its undoubted prophetical character, lest an excuse should be furnished to the Israelitish worshipper for undervaluing its actual commands. So, again, the secondary and distinct meaning of prophecy, is commonly hidden from view by the veil of the literal text, lest its immediate scope should be overlooked; when that is once fulfilled, the recesses of the sacred language seem to open, and give up the further truths deposited in them. Our Lord, probably, in the prophecy recorded in the Gospels, was not careful (if I may so express myself) that His disciples should distinguish between His final and immediate coming; thinking it a less error that they should consider the last day approaching, than that they should forget their own duties in the contemplation of the future fortunes of the Church. Nay, even types fulfilled, if they be historical, seem sometimes purposely to be left without the sanction of an interpretation, lest we should neglect the instruction still conveyed by a literal narrative. This accounts for the silence observed concerning the evangelical import, to which I have already referred, of the sacrifice of Isaac, which contains a definite and permanent moral lesson, as a matter of fact, however clear may be its further meaning as emblematical of our Lord’s sufferings on the cross. In corroboration of this remark, let it be observed, that there seems to have been in the Church a traditionary explanation of these historical types, derived from the Apostles, but kept among the secret doctrines, as being dangerous to the majority of hearers; and certainly St. Paul, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, affords us an instance of such a tradition, both as existing and as secret (even though it be shown to be of Jewish origin), when, first checking himself and questioning his brethren’s faith, he communicates, not without hesitation, the evangelical scope of the account of Melchisedec, as introduced into the book of Genesis.
As to the Christian writers of Alexandria, if they erred in their use of the Allegory, their error did not lie in the mere adoption of an instrument which Philo or the Egyptian hierophants had employed (though this is sometimes made the ground of objection), for Scripture itself had taken it out of the hands of such authorities. Nor did their error lie in the mere circumstance of their allegorizing Scripture, where Scripture gave no direct countenance; as if we might not interpret the sacred word for ourselves, as we interpret the events of life, by the principles which itself supplies. But they erred, whenever and as far as they carried their favourite rule of exposition beyond the spirit of the canon above laid down, so as to obscure the primary meaning of Scripture, and to weaken the force of historical facts and doctrinal declarations; and much more, if at any time they degraded the inspired text to the office of conveying the thoughts of uninspired teachers on subjects not sacred.
And, as it is impossible to draw a precise line between the use and abuse of allegorizing, so it is impossible also to ascertain the exact degree of blame incurred by individual teachers who familiarly indulge in it. They may be faulty as commentators, yet instructive as devotional writers; and their liberty in interpretation is to be regulated by the state of mind in which they address themselves to the work, and by their proficiency in the knowledge and practice of Christian duty. So far as men use the language of the Bible (as is often done in poems and works of fiction) as the mere instrument of a cultivated fancy, to make their style attractive or impressive, so far, it is needless to say, they are guilty of a great irreverence towards its Divine Author. On the other hand, it is surely no extravagance to assert that there are minds so gifted and disciplined as to approach the position occupied by the inspired writers, and therefore able to apply their words with a fitness, and entitled to do so with a freedom, which is unintelligible to the dull or heartless criticism of inferior understandings. So far then as the Alexandrian Fathers partook of such a singular gift of grace (and Origen surely bears on him the tokens of some exalted moral dignity), not incited by a capricious and presumptuous imagination, but burning with that vigorous faith, which, seeing God in all things, does and suffers all for His sake, and, while filled with the contemplation of His supreme glory, still discharges each command in the exactness of its real meaning, in the same degree they stand not merely excused, but are placed immeasurably above the multitude of those who find it so easy to censure them.—And so much on the Allegory, as the means of observing the Disciplina Arcani.
The same method of interpretation was used for another purpose, which is more open to censure. When Christian controversialists were urged by objections to various passages in the history of the Old Testament, as derogatory to the Divine Perfections or to the Jewish saints, they had recourse to an allegorical explanation by way of answer. Thus Origen spiritualizes the account of Abraham’s denying his wife, the polygamy of the Patriarchs, and Noah’s intoxication. It is impossible to defend such a mode of interpretation, which seems to imply a want of faith in those who had recourse to it. Doubtless this earnestness to exculpate the saints of the elder covenant is partly to be attributed to a noble jealousy for the honour of God, and a reverence for the memory of those who, on the whole, rise in their moral attainments far above their fellows, and well deserve the confidence in their virtue which the Alexandrians manifest. Yet God has given us rules of right and wrong, which we must not be afraid to apply in estimating the conduct of even the best of mere men; though errors are thereby detected, the scandal of which we ourselves have to bear in our own day. So far must be granted in fairness; but some have gone on to censure the principle itself which this procedure involved: viz. that of representing religion, for the purpose of conciliating the heathen, in the form most attractive to their prejudices: and, as it was generally received in the Primitive Church, and the considerations which it involves are not without their bearings upon the doctrinal question in which we shall be presently engaged, I will devote some space here to the examination of it.
The mode of arguing and teaching in question which is called economical by the ancients, can scarcely be disconnected from the Disciplina Arcani, as will appear by some of the instances which follow, though it is convenient to consider it by itself. If it is necessary to contrast the two with each other, the one may be considered as withholding the truth, and the other as setting it out to advantage. The Economy is certainly sanctioned by St. Paul in his own conduct. To the Jews he became as a Jew, and as without the Law to the heathen. His behaviour at Athens is the most remarkable instance in his history of this method of acting. Instead of uttering any invective against their Polytheism, he began a discourse upon the Unity of the Divine Nature; and then proceeded to claim the altar, consecrated in the neighbourhood to the unknown God, as the property of Him whom he preached to them, and to enforce his doctrine of the Divine Immateriality, not by miracles, but by argument, and that founded on the words of a heathen poet. This was the example which the Alexandrians set before them in their intercourse with the heathen, as may be shown by the following instances.
Theonas, Bishop of Alexandria (A.D. 282-300), has left his directions for the behaviour of Christians who were in the service of the imperial court. The utmost caution is enjoined them, not to give offence to the heathen emperor. If a Christian was appointed librarian, he was to take good care not to show any contempt for secular knowledge and the ancient writers. He was advised to make himself familiar with the poets, philosophers, orators, and historians, of classical literature; and, while discussing their writings, to take incidental opportunities of recommending the Scriptures, introducing mention of Christ, and by degrees revealing the real dignity of His nature.
The conversion of Gregory of Neocćsarea, (A.D. 231) affords an exemplification of this procedure in an individual case. He had originally attached himself to the study of rhetoric and the law, but was persuaded by Origen, whose lectures he attended, to exchange these pursuits, first for science, then for philosophy, then for theology, so far as right notions concerning religion could be extracted from the promiscuous writings of the various philosophical sects. Thus, while professedly teaching him Pagan philosophy, his skilful master insensibly enlightened him in the knowledge of the Christian faith. Then leading him to Scripture, he explained to him its difficulties as they arose; till Gregory, overcome by the force of truth, announced to his instructor his intention of exchanging the pursuits of this world for the service of God.
Clement’s Stromateis (A.D. 200), a work which has already furnished us with illustrations of the Alexandrian method of teaching, was written with the design of converting the learned heathen, and pursues the same plan which Origen adopted towards Gregory. The author therein professes his wish to blend together philosophy and religion, refutes those who censure the former, shows the advantage of it, and how it is to be applied. This leading at once to an inquiry concerning what particular school of philosophy is to be held of divine origin, he answers in a celebrated passage, that all are to be referred thither as far as they respectively inculcate the principles of piety and morality, and none, except as containing the portions and foreshadowings of the truth. “By philosophy,” he says, “I do not mean the Stoic, nor the Platonic, nor the Epicurean and Aristotelic, but all good doctrine in every one of the schools, all precepts of holiness combined with religious knowledge. All this, taken together, or the Eclectic, I call philosophy: whereas the rest are mere forgeries of the human intellect, and in no respect to be accounted divine.” At the same time, to mark out the peculiar divinity of Revealed Religion, he traces all the philosophy of the heathen to the teaching of the Hebrew sages, earnestly maintaining its entire subserviency to Christianity, as but the love of that truth which the Scriptures really impart.
The same general purpose of conciliating the heathen, and (as far as might be,) indulging the existing fashions to which their literature was subjected, may be traced in the slighter compositions which the Christians published in defence of their religion, being what in this day might be called pamphlets, written in imitation of speeches after the manner of Isocrates, and adorned with those graces of language which the schools taught, and the inspired Apostle has exhibited in his Epistle to the Hebrews. Clement’s Exhortation to the Gentiles is a specimen of this style of writing; as also those of Athenagoras and Tatian, and that ascribed to Justin Martyr.
Again:—the last-mentioned Father supplies us with an instance of an economical relinquishment of a sacred doctrine. When Justin Martyr, in his argument with the Jew Trypho, (A.D. 150.) finds himself unable to convince him from the Old Testament of the divinity of Christ, he falls back upon the doctrine of His divine Mission, as if this were a point indisputable on the one hand, and on the other, affording a sufficient ground, from which to advance, when expedient, to the proof of the full evangelical truth. In the same passage, moreover, as arguing with an unbeliever, he permits himself to speak without an anathema of those (the Ebionites) who professed Christianity, and yet denied Christ’s divinity. Athanasius himself fully recognizes the propriety of this concealment of the doctrine on a fitting occasion, and thus accounts for the silence of the Apostles concerning it, in their speeches recorded in the book of Acts, viz. that they were unwilling, by a disclosure of it, to prejudice the Jews against those miracles, the acknowledgment of which was a first step towards their receiving it.
Gregory of Neocćsarea (A.D. 240-270), whose conversion by Origen has already been adduced in illustration, furnishes us in his own conduct with a similar but stronger instance of an economical concealment of the full truth. It seems that certain heretical teachers, in the time of Basil, ascribed to Gregory, whether by way of censure or in self-defence, the Sabellian view of the Trinity; and, moreover, the belief that Christ was a creature. The occasion of these statements, as imputed to him, was a vivâ voce controversy with a heathen, which had been taken down in writing by the bystanders. The charge of Sabellianism is refuted by Gregory’s extant writings; both imputations, however, are answered by St. Basil, and that, on the principle of controversy which I have above attempted to describe. “When Gregory,” he says, “declared that the Father and Son were two in our conception of them, one in hypostasis, he spoke not as teaching doctrine, but as arguing with an unbeliever, viz. in his disputation with Ćlianus; but this distinction our heretical opponents could not enter into, much as they pride themselves on the subtlety of their intellect. Even granting there were no mistakes in taking the notes (which, please God, it is my intention to prove from the text as it now stands), it is to be supposed, that he did not think it necessary to be very exact in his doctrinal terms, when employed in converting a heathen; but in some things, even to concede to his feelings, that he might gain him over to the cardinal points. Accordingly, you may find many expressions there, of which heretics now take great advantage, such as ‘creature,’ ‘made,’ and the like. So again, many statements which he has made concerning the Incarnation, are referred to the Divine Nature of the Son by those who do not skilfully enter into his meaning; as, indeed, is the very expression in question which they have circulated.”
I will here again instance a parallel use of the Economy on the part of Athanasius himself, and will avail myself of the words of the learned Petavius. “Even Athanasius,” he says, “whose very gift it was, above all other Fathers, to possess a clear and accurate knowledge of the Catholic doctrine concerning the Trinity, so that all succeeding antagonists of Arianism may be truly said to have derived their powers and their arguments from him, even this keen and vigilant champion of orthodoxy, in arguing with the Gentiles for the Divinity and incarnation of the Word, urges them with considerations drawn from their own philosophical notions concerning Him. Not that he was ignorant how unlike orthodoxy, and how like Arianism, such notions were, but he bore in mind the necessity of favourably disposing the minds of the Gentiles to listen to his teaching; and he was aware that it was one thing to lay the rudiments of the faith in an ignorant or heathen mind, and another to defend the faith against heretics, or to teach it dogmatically. For instance, in answering their objection to the Divine Word having taken flesh, which especially offended them, he bids them consider whether they are not inconsistent in dwelling upon this, while they themselves believe that there is a Divine Word, the presiding principle and soul of the world, through the movements of which He is visibly displayed; ‘for what (he asks) does Christianity say more than that the Word has presented Himself to the inspection of our senses by the instrumentality of a body?’ And yet it is certain that the Father and the pervading Word of the Platonists, differed materially from the Sacred Persons of the Trinity, as we hold the doctrine, and Athanasius too, in every page of his writings.”
There are instances in various ways of the economical method, that is, of accommodation to the feelings and prejudices of the hearer, in leading him to the reception of a novel or unacceptable doctrine. It professes to be founded in the actual necessity of the case; because those who are strangers to the tone of thought and principles of the speaker, cannot at once be initiated into his system, and because they must begin with imperfect views; and therefore, if he is to teach them at all, he must put before them large propositions, which he has afterwards to modify, or make assertions which are but parallel or analogous to the truth, rather than coincident with it. And it cannot be denied that those who attempt to speak at all times the naked truth, or rather the commonly-received expression of it, are certain, more than other men, to convey wrong impressions of their meaning to those who happen to be below them, or to differ widely from them, in intelligence and cast of mind. On the other hand, the abuse of the Economy in the hands of unscrupulous reasoners, is obvious. Even the honest controversialist or teacher will find it very difficult to represent without misrepresenting, what it is yet his duty to present to his hearers with caution or reserve. Here the obvious rule to guide our practice is, to be careful ever to maintain substantial truth in our use of the economical method. It is thus we lead forward children by degrees, influencing and impressing their minds by means of their own confined conceptions of things, before we attempt to introduce them to our own; yet at the same time modelling their thoughts according to the analogy of those to which we mean ultimately to bring them. Again, the information given to the blind man, that scarlet was like the sound of a trumpet, is an instance of an unexceptionable economy, since it was as true as it could be under the circumstances of the case, conveying a substantially correct impression as far as it went.
In applying this rule to the instances above given, it is plain that Justin, Gregory, or Athanasius, were justifiable or not in their Economy, according as they did or did not practically mislead their opponents. Merely to leave a man in errors which he had independently of us, or to abstain from removing them, cannot be blamed as a fault, and may be a duty; though it is so difficult to hit the mark in these perplexing cases, that it is not wonderful, should these or other Fathers have failed at times, and said more or less than was proper. Again, in the instances of St. Paul, Theonas, Origen, and Clement, the doctrine which their conduct implies, is the Divinity of Paganism; a true doctrine, though the heathen whom they addressed would not at first rightly apprehend it. But I am aware that some persons will differ from me here, and others will be perplexed about my meaning. So let this be a reserved point, to be considered when we have finished the present subject.
The Alexandrian Father who has already been quoted, accurately describes the rules which should guide the Christian in speaking and acting economically. “Being fully persuaded of the omnipresence of God,” says Clement, “and ashamed to come short of the truth, he is satisfied with the approval of God, and of his own conscience. Whatever is in his mind, is also on his tongue; towards those who are fit recipients, both in speaking and living, he harmonizes his profession with his thoughts. He both thinks and speaks the truth; except when careful treatment is necessary, and then, as a physician for the good of his patients, he will lie, or rather utter a lie, as the Sophists say. For instance, the noble Apostle circumcised Timothy, while he cried out and wrote down, ‘Circumcision availeth not’…Nothing, however, but his neighbour’s good will lead him to do this…He gives himself up for the Church, for the friends whom he hath begotten in the faith for an ensample to those who have the ability to undertake the high office (economy) of a religious and charitable teacher, for an exhibition of truth in his words, and for the exercise of love towards the Lord.”
Further light will be thrown upon the doctrine of the Economy, by considering it as exemplified in the dealings of Providence towards man. The word occurs in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, where it is used for that series of Divine appointments viewed as a whole, by which the Gospel is introduced and realized among mankind, being translated in our version “dispensation.” It will evidently bear a wider sense, embracing the Jewish and patriarchal dispensations, or any Divine procedure, greater or less, which consists of means and an end. Thus it is applied by the Fathers, to the history of Christ’s humiliation, as exhibited in the doctrines of His incarnation, ministry, atonement, exaltation, and mediatorial sovereignty, and, as such distinguished from the “theologia” or the collection of truths relative to His personal indwelling in the bosom of God. Again, it might with equal fitness be used for the general system of providence by which the world’s course is carried on; or, again, for the work of creation itself, as opposed to the absolute perfection of the Eternal God, that internal concentration of His Attributes in self-contemplation, which took place on the seventh day, when He rested from all the work which He had made. And since this everlasting and unchangeable quiescence is the simplest and truest notion we can obtain of the Deity, it seems to follow, that strictly speaking, all those so-called Economies or dispensations, which display His character in action, are but condescensions to the infirmity and peculiarity of our minds, shadowy representations of realities which are incomprehensible to creatures such as ourselves, who estimate everything by the rule of association and arrangement, by the notion of a purpose and plan, object and means, parts and whole. What, for instance, is the revelation of general moral laws, their infringement, their tedious victory, the endurance of the wicked, and the “winking at the times of ignorance,” but an “Economia” of greater truths untold, the best practical communication of them which our minds in their present state will admit? What are the phenomena of the external world, but a divine mode of conveying to the mind the realities of existence, individuality, and the influence of being on being, the best possible, though beguiling the imagination of most men with a harmless but unfounded belief in matter as distinct from the impressions on their senses? This at least is the opinion of some philosophers, and whether the particular theory be right or wrong, it serves as an illustration here of the great truth which we are considering. Or what, again, as others hold, is the popular argument from final causes but an “Economia” suited to the practical wants of the multitude, as teaching them in the simplest way the active presence of Him, who after all dwells intelligibly, prior to argument, in their heart and conscience? And though on the mind’s first mastering this general principle, it seems to itself at the moment to have cut all the ties which bind it to the universe, and to be floated off upon the ocean of interminable scepticism; yet a true sense of its own weakness brings it back, the instinctive persuasion that it must be intended to rely on something, and therefore that the information given, though philosophically inaccurate, must be practically certain; a sure confidence in the love of Him who cannot deceive, and who has impressed the image and thought of Himself and of His will upon our original nature. Here then we may lay down with certainty as a consolatory truth, what was but a rule of duty when we were reviewing the Economies of man; viz. that whatever is told us from heaven, is true in so full and substantial a sense, that no possible mistake can arise practically from following it. And it may be added, on the other hand, that the greatest risk will result from attempting to be wiser than God has made us, and to outstep in the least degree the circle which is prescribed as the limit of our range. This is but the duty of implicit faith in Him who knows what is good for us, and who has ordained that in our practical concerns intellectual ability should do no more than enlighten us in the difficulties of our situation, not in the solutions of them. Accordingly, we may safely admit the first chapter of the book of Job, the twenty-second of the first book of Kings, and other passages of Scripture, to be Economies, that is, representations conveying substantial truth in the form in which we are best able to receive it; and to be accepted by us and used in their literal sense, as our highest wisdom, because we have no powers of mind equal to the more philosophical determination of them. Again, the Mosaic Dispensation was an Economy, simulating (so to say) unchangeableness, when from the first it was destined to be abolished. And our Blessed Lord’s conduct on earth abounds with the like gracious and considerate condescension to the weakness of His creatures, who would have been driven either to a terrified inaction or to presumption, had they known then as afterwards the secret of His Divine Nature.
I will add two or three instances, in which this doctrine of the Divine Economies has been wrongly applied; and I do so from necessity, lest the foregoing remarks should seem to countenance errors, which I am most desirous at all times and every where to protest against.
For instance, the Economy has been employed to the disparagement of the Old Testament Saints; as if the praise bestowed on them by Almighty God were but economically given, that is, with reference to their times and circumstances; their real insight into moral truth being possibly below the average standard of knowledge in matters of faith and practice received among nations rescued from the rude and semi-savage state in which they are considered to have lived. And again, it has been even supposed, that injunctions, as well as praise, have been thus given them, which an enlightened age is at liberty to criticize; for instance, the command to slay Isaac has sometimes been viewed as an economy, based upon certain received ideas in Abraham’s day, concerning the innocence and merit of human sacrifice. It is enough to have thus disclaimed participation in these theories, which of course are no objection to the general doctrine of the Economy, unless indeed it could be shown, that those who hold a principle are answerable for all the applications arbitrarily made of it by the licentious ingenuity of others.
Again, the principle of the Economy has sometimes been applied to the interpretation of the New Testament. It has been said, for instance, that the Epistle to the Hebrews does not state the simple truth in the sense in which the Apostles themselves believed it, but merely as it would be palatable to the Jews. The advocates of this hypothesis have proceeded to maintain, that the doctrine of the Atonement is no part of the essential and permanent evangelical system. To a conscientious reasoner, however, it is evident, that the structure of the Epistle in question is so intimately connected with the reality of the expiatory scheme, that to suppose the latter imaginary, would be to impute to the writer, not an economy (which always preserves substantial truth), but a gross and audacious deceit.
A parallel theory to this has been put forward by men of piety among the Predestinarians, with a view of reconciling the inconsistency between their faith and practice. They have suggested, that the promises and threats of Scripture are founded on an economy, which is needful to effect the conversion of the elect, but clears up and vanishes under the light of the true spiritual perception, to which the converted at length attain. This has been noticed in another connexion, and will here serve as one among many illustrations which might be given, of the fallacious application of a true principle. And so much upon the Economia.
A question was just now reserved, as interfering with the subject then before us. In what sense can it be said, that there is any connection between Paganism and Christianity so real, as to warrant the preacher of the latter to conciliate idolaters by allusion to it? St. Paul evidently connects the true religion with the existing systems which he laboured to supplant, in his speech to the Athenians in the Acts, and his example is a sufficient guide to missionaries now, and a full justification of the line of conduct pursued by the Alexandrians, in the instances similar to it; but are we able to account for his conduct, and ascertain the principle by which it was regulated? I think we can; and the exhibition of it will set before the reader another doctrine of the Alexandrian school, which it is as much to our purpose to understand, and which I shall call the divinity of Traditionary Religion.
We know well enough for practical purposes what is meant by Revealed Religion; viz. that it is the doctrine taught in the Mosaic and Christian dispensations, and contained in the Holy Scriptures, and is from God in a sense in which no other doctrine can be said to be from Him. Yet if we would speak correctly, we must confess, on the authority of the Bible itself, that all knowledge of religion is from Him, and not only that which the Bible has transmitted to us. There never was a time when God had not spoken to man, and told him to a certain extent his duty. His injunctions to Noah, the common father of all mankind, is the first recorded fact of the sacred history after the deluge. Accordingly, we are expressly told in the New Testament, that at no time He left Himself without witness in the world, and that in every nation He accepts those who fear and obey Him. It would seem, then, that there is something true and divinely revealed, in every religion all over the earth, overloaded, as it may be, and at times even stifled by the impieties which the corrupt will and understanding of man have incorporated with it. Such are the doctrines of the power and presence of an invisible God, of His moral law and governance, of the obligation of duty, and the certainty of a just judgment, and of reward and punishment, as eventually dispensed to individuals; so that Revelation, properly speaking, is an universal, not a local gift; and the distinction between the state of Israelites formerly and Christians now, and that of the heathen, is, not that we can, and they cannot attain to future blessedness, but that the Church of God ever has had, and the rest of mankind never have had, authoritative documents of truth, and appointed channels of communication with Him. The word and the Sacraments are the characteristic of the elect people of God; but all men have had more or less the guidance of Tradition, in addition to those internal notions of right and wrong which the Spirit has put into the heart of each individual.
This vague and uncertain family of religious truths, originally from God, but sojourning without the sanction of miracle, or a definite home, as pilgrims up and down the world, and discernible and separable from the corrupt legends with which they are mixed, by the spiritual mind alone, may be called the Dispensation of Paganism, after the example of the learned Father already quoted. And further, Scripture gives us reason to believe that the traditions, thus originally delivered to mankind at large, have been secretly re-animated and enforced by new communications from the unseen world; though these were not of such a nature as to be produced as evidence, or used as criteria and tests, and roused the attention rather than informed the understandings of the heathen. The book of Genesis contains a record of the Dispensation of Natural Religion, or Paganism, as well as of the patriarchal. The dreams of Pharaoh and Abimelech, as of Nebuchadnezzar afterwards, are instances of the dealings of God with those to whom He did not vouchsafe a written revelation. Or should it be said, that these particular cases merely come within the range of the Divine supernatural Governance which was in their neighbourhood,—an assertion which requires proof,—let the book of Job be taken as a less suspicious instance of the dealings of God with the heathen. Job was a pagan in the same sense in which the Eastern nations are Pagans in the present day. He lived among idolaters, yet he and his friends had cleared themselves from the superstitions with which the true creed was beset; and while one of them was divinely instructed by dreams, he himself at length heard the voice of God out of the whirlwind, in recompense for his long trial and his faithfulness under it. Why should not the book of Job be accepted by us, as a gracious intimation given us, who are God’s sons, for our comfort, when we are anxious about our brethren who are still “scattered abroad” in an evil world; an intimation that the Sacrifice, which is the hope of Christians, has its power and its success, wherever men seek God with their whole heart?—If it be objected that Job lived in a less corrupted age than the times of ignorance which followed, Scripture, as if for our full satisfaction, draws back the curtain farther still in the history of Balaam. There a bad man and a heathen is made the oracle of true divine messages about doing justly, and loving mercy, and walking humbly; nay, even among the altars of superstition, the Spirit of God vouchsafes to utter prophecy. And so in the cave of Endor, even a saint was sent from the dead to join the company of an apostate king, and of the sorceress whose aid he was seeking. Accordingly, there is nothing unreasonable in the notion, that there may have been heathen poets and sages, or sibyls again, in a certain extent divinely illuminated, and organs through whom religious and moral truth was conveyed to their countrymen; though their knowledge of the Power from whom the gift came, nay, and their perception of the gift as existing in themselves, may have been very faint or defective.
This doctrine, thus imperfectly sketched, shall now be presented to the reader in the words of St. Clement. “To the Word of God,” he says, “all the host of angels and heavenly powers is subject, revealing, as He does, His holy office (economy), for Him who has put all things under Him. Wherefore, His are all men; some actually knowing Him, others not as yet: some as friends” (Christians), “others as faithful servants” (Jews), “others as simply servants” (heathen). “He is the Teacher, who instructs the enlightened Christian by mysteries, and the faithful labourer by cheerful hopes, and the hard of heart with His keen corrective discipline; so that His providence is particular, public, and universal…He it is who gives to the Greeks their philosophy by His ministering Angels…for He is the Saviour not of these or those, but of all…His precepts, both the former and the latter, are drawn forth from one fount; those who were before the Law, not suffered to be without law, those who do not hear the Jewish philosophy, not surrendered to an unbridled course. Dispensing in former times to some His precepts, to others philosophy, now at length, by His own personal coming, He has closed the course of unbelief, which is henceforth inexcusable; Greek and barbarian” (that is, Jew) “being led forward by a separate process to that perfection which is through faith.”
If this doctrine be scriptural, it is not difficult to determine the line of conduct which is to be observed by the Christian apologist and missionary. Believing God’s hand to be in every system, so far forth as it is true (though Scripture alone is the depositary of His unadulterated and complete revelation), he will, after St. Paul’s manner, seek some points in the existing superstitions as the basis of his own instructions, instead of indiscriminately condemning and discarding the whole assemblage of heathen opinions and practices; and he will address his hearers, not as men in a state of actual perdition, but as being in imminent danger of “the wrath to come,” because they are in bondage and ignorance, and probably under God’s displeasure, that is, the vast majority of them are so in fact; but not necessarily so, from the very circumstance of their being heathen. And while he strenuously opposes all that is idolatrous, immoral, and profane, in their creed, he will profess to be leading them on to perfection, and to be recovering and purifying, rather than reversing the essential principles of their belief.
A number of corollaries may be drawn from this view of the relation of Christianity to Paganism, by way of solving difficulties which often perplex the mind. For example, we thus perceive the utter impropriety of ridicule and satire as a means of preparing a heathen population for the reception of the truth. Of course it is right, soberly and temperately, to expose the absurdities of idol-worship; but sometimes it is maintained that a writer, such as the infamous Lucian, who scoffs at an established religion altogether, is the suitable preparation for the Christian preacher,—as if infidelity were a middle state between superstition and truth. This view derives its plausibility from the circumstance that in drawing out systems in writing, to erase a false doctrine is the first step towards inserting the true. Accordingly, the mind is often compared to a tablet or paper: a state of it is contemplated of absolute freedom from all prepossessions and likings for one system or another, as a first step towards arriving at the truth; and infidelity represented as that candid and dispassionate frame of mind, which is the desideratum. For instance, at the present day, men are to be found of high religious profession, who, to the surprise and grief of sober minds, exult in the overthrow just now of religion in France, as if an unbeliever were in a more hopeful state than a bigot, for advancement in real spiritual knowledge. But in truth, the mind never can resemble a blank paper, in its freedom from impressions and prejudices. Infidelity is a positive, not a negative state; it is a state of profaneness, pride, and selfishness; and he who believes a little, but encompasses that little with the inventions of men, is undeniably in a better condition than he who blots out from his mind both the human inventions, and that portion of truth which was concealed in them.
Again: it is plain that the tenderness of dealing, which it is our duty to adopt towards a heathen unbeliever, is not to be used towards an apostate. No economy can be employed towards those who have been once enlightened, and have fallen away. I wish to speak explicitly on this subject, because there is a great deal of that spurious charity among us which would cultivate the friendship of those who, in a Christian country, speak against the Church or its creeds. Origen and others were not unwilling to be on a footing of intercourse with the heathen philosophers of their day, in order, if it were possible, to lead them into the truth; but deliberate heretics and apostates, those who had known the truth, and rejected it, were objects of their abhorrence, and were avoided from the truest charity to them. For what can be said to those who already know all we have to say? And how can we show our fear for their souls, nay, and for our own steadfastness, except by a strong action? Thus Origen, when a youth, could not be induced to attend the prayers of a heretic of Antioch whom his patroness had adopted, from a loathing, as he says, of heresy. And St. Augustin himself tells us, that while he was a Manichee, his own mother would not eat at the same table with him in her house, from her strong aversion to the blasphemies which were the characteristic of his sect. And Scripture fully sanctions this mode of acting, by the severity with which such unhappy men are spoken of, on the different occasions when mention is made of them.
Further: the foregoing remarks may serve to show us, with what view the early Church cultivated and employed heathen literature in its missionary labours; viz. not with the notion that the cultivation, which literature gives, was any substantial improvement of our moral nature, but as thereby opening the mind, and rendering it susceptible of an appeal; nor as if the heathen literature itself had any direct connexion with the matter of Christianity, but because it contained in it the scattered fragments of those original traditions which might be made the means of introducing a student to the Christian system, being the ore in which the true metal was found. The account above given of the conversion of Gregory is a proof of this.
The only danger to which the Alexandrian doctrine is exposed, is that of its confusing the Scripture Dispensations with that of Natural Religion, as if they were of equal authority; as if the Gospel had not a claim of acceptance on the conscience of all who heard it, nor became a touchstone of their moral condition; and as if the Bible, as the Pagan system, were but partially true, and had not been attested by the discriminating evidence of miracles. This is the heresy of the Neologians in this day, as it was of the Eclectics in primitive times; as will be shown in the next section. The foregoing extract from Clement shows his entire freedom from so grievous an error; but in order to satisfy any suspicion which may exist of his using language which may have led to a more decided corruption after his day, I will quote a passage from the sixth book of his Stromateis, in which he maintains the supremacy of Revealed Religion, as being in fact the source and test of all other religions; the extreme imperfection of the latter; the derivation of whatever is true in these from Revelation; the secret presence of God in them, by that Word of Life which is directly and bodily revealed in Christianity; and the corruption and yet forced imitation of the truth by the evil spirit in such of them, as he wishes to make pass current among mankind.
“Should it be said that the Greeks discovered philosophy by human wisdom,” he says, “I reply, that I find the Scriptures declare all wisdom to be a divine gift: for instance, the Psalmist considers wisdom to be the greatest of gifts, and offers this petition, ‘I am thy servant, make me wise.’ And does not David ask for illumination in its diverse functions, when he says, ‘Teach me goodness, discipline, and knowledge, for I have believed Thy precepts’? Here he confesses that the Covenants of God are of supreme authority, and vouchsafed to the choice portion of mankind. Again, there is a Psalm which says of God, ‘He hath not acted thus with any other nation, and His judgments He hath not revealed to them’; where the words, ‘He hath not done thus,’ imply that He hath indeed done somewhat, but not thus. By using thus he contrasts their state with our superiority; else the Prophet might simply have said, ‘He hath not acted with other nations,’ without adding thus. The prophetical figure, ‘The Lord is over many waters,’ refers to the same truth; that is, a Lord not only of the different covenants, but also of the various methods of teaching, which lead to righteousness, whether among the Gentiles or the Jews. David also bears his testimony to this truth, when he says in the Psalm, ‘Let the sinners be turned into hell, all the nations which forget God’; that is, they forget whom they formerly remembered, they put aside Him whom they knew before they forgot. It seems then there was some dim knowledge of God even among the Gentiles…They who say that philosophy originates with the devil, would do well to consider what Scripture says about the devil’s being transformed into an Angel of light. For what will he do then? it is plain he will prophesy. Now if he prophesies as an Angel of light, of course he will speak what is true. If he shall prophesy angelic and enlightened doctrine, he will prophesy what is profitable also; that is, at the time when he is thus changed in his apparent actions, far different as he is at bottom in his real apostasy. For how would he deceive except by craftily leading on the inquirer by means of truth, to an intimacy with himself, and so at length seducing him into error?…Therefore philosophy is not false, though he who is thief and liar speaks truth by a change in his manner of acting…The philosophy of the Greeks, limited and particular as it is, contains the rudiments of that really perfect knowledge which is beyond this world, which is engaged in intellectual objects, and upon those more spiritual, which eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, before they were made clear to us by our Great Teacher, who reveals the holy of holies, and still holier truths in an ascending scale, to those who are genuine heirs of the Lord’s adoption.”
What I have said about the method of teaching adopted by the Alexandrian, and more or less by the other primitive Churches, amounts to this; that they on principle refrained from telling unbelievers all they believed themselves, and further, that they endeavoured to connect their own doctrine with theirs, whether Jewish or pagan, adopting their sentiments and even their language, as far as they lawfully could. Some instances of this have been given; more will follow, in the remarks which I shall now make upon the influence of Platonism on their theological language.
The reasons, which induced the early Fathers to avail themselves of the language of Platonism, were various. They did so, partly as an argumentum ad hominem; as if the Christian were not professing in the doctrine of the Trinity a more mysterious tenet, than that which had been propounded by a great heathen authority; partly to conciliate their philosophical opponents; partly to save themselves the arduousness of inventing terms, where the Church had not yet authoritatively supplied them; and partly with the hope, or even belief, that the Platonic school had been guided in portions of its system by a more than human wisdom, of which Moses was the unknown but real source. As far as these reasons depend upon the rule of the Economy, they have already been considered; and an instance of their operation given in the exoteric conduct of Athanasius himself, whose orthodoxy no one questions. But the last reason given, their suspicion of the divine origin of the Platonic doctrine, requires some explanation.
It is unquestionable that, from very early times, traditions have been afloat through the world, attaching the notion of a Trinity, in some sense or other, to the First Cause. Not to mention the traces of this doctrine in the classical and the Indian mythologies, we detect it in the Magian hypothesis of a supreme and two subordinate antagonist deities in Plutarch’s Trinity of God, matter, and the evil spirit, and in certain heresies in the first age of the Church, which, to the Divine Being and the Demiurgus, added a third original principle, sometimes the evil spirit, and sometimes matter. Plato has adopted the same general notion; and with no closer or more definite approach to the true doctrine. On the whole, it seems reasonable to infer, that the heathen world possessed traditions too ancient to be rejected, and too sacred to be used in popular theology. If Plato’s doctrine bears a greater apparent resemblance to the revealed truth than that of others, this is owing merely to his reserve in speaking on the subject. His obscurity allows room for an ingenious fancy to impose a meaning upon him. Whether he includes in his Trinity the notion of a First Cause, its active energy, and the influence resulting from it; or again, the divine substance as the source of all spiritual beings from eternity, the divine power and wisdom as exerted in time in the formation of the material world, and thirdly, the innumerable derivative spirits by whom the world is immediately governed, is altogether doubtful. Nay, even the writers who revived his philosophy in the third and fourth centuries after Christ, and embellished the doctrine with additions from Scripture, discover a like extraordinary variation in their mode of expounding it. The Maker of the world, the Demiurge, considered by Plato sometimes as the first, sometimes as the second principle, is by Julian placed as the second, by Plotinus as the third, and by Proclus as the fourth, that is, the last of three subordinate powers, all dependent on a First, or the One Supreme Deity. In truth, speculations, vague and unpractical as these, made no impression on the minds of the heathen philosophers, perhaps as never being considered by them as matters of fact, but as allegories and metaphysical notions, and accordingly, caused in them no solicitude or diligence to maintain consistency in their expression of them.
But very different was the influence of the ancient theory of Plato, however originated, when it came in contact with believers in the inspired records, who at once discerned in it that mysterious Doctrine, brought out as if into bodily shape and almost practical persuasiveness, which lay hid under the angelic manifestations of the Law and the visions of the Prophets. Difficult as it is to determine the precise place in the sacred writings, where the Divine Logos or Word was first revealed, and how far He is intended in each particular passage, the idea of Him is doubtless seated very deeply in their teaching. Appearing first as if a mere created minister of God’s will, He is found to be invested with an ever-brightening glory, till at length we are bid fall down as before the personal Presence and consubstantial Representative of the one God. Those then, who were acquainted with the Sacred Volume, possessed in it a key, more or less exact according to their degree of knowledge, for that aboriginal tradition which the heathen ignorantly but piously venerated, and were prompt in appropriating the language of philosophers, with a changed meaning, to the rightful service of that spiritual kingdom, of which a divine personal mediation was the great characteristic. In the books of Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus, and much more, in the writings of Philo, the Logos of Plato, which had denoted the divine energy in forming the world, or the Demiurge, and the previous all-perfect incommunicable design of it, or the Only-begotten, was arrayed in the attributes of personality, made the instrument of creation, and the revealed Image of the incomprehensible God. Amid such bold and impatient anticipations of the future, it is not wonderful that the Alexandrian Jews outstepped the truth which they hoped to appropriate; and that intruding into things not seen as yet, with the confidence of prophets rather than of disciples of Revelation, they eventually obscured the doctrine when disclosed, which we may well believe they loved in prospect and desired to honour. This remark particularly applies to Philo, who associating it with Platonic notions as well as words, developed its lineaments with so rude and hasty a hand, as to separate the idea of the Divine Word from that of the Eternal God; and so perhaps to prepare the way for Arianism.
Even after this Alexandrino-Judaic doctrine had been corrected and completed by the inspired Apostles St. Paul and St. John, it did not lose its hold upon the Fathers of the Christian Church, who could not but discern in the old Scriptures, even more clearly than their predecessors, those rudiments of the perfect truth which God’s former revelations concealed; and who in consequence called others, (as it were,) to gaze upon these both as a prophetical witness in confutation of unbelief, and in gratitude to Him who had wrought so marvellously with His Church. But it followed from the nature of the case, that, while they thus traced with watchful eyes, under the veil of the literal text, the first and gathering tokens of that Divine Agent who in fulness of time became their Redeemer, they were led to speak of Him in terms short of that full confession of His divine greatness, which the Gospel reveals, and which they themselves elsewhere unequivocally expressed, especially as living in times before the history of heresy had taught them the necessity of caution in their phraseology. Thus, for instance, from a text in the book of Proverbs, which they understood to refer to Christ, Origen and others speak of Him as “created by the Lord in the beginning, before His works of old”; meaning no more than that it was He, the true Light of man, who was secretly intended by the Spirit, and mystically (though incompletely) described, when Solomon spoke of the Divine Wisdom as the instrument of God’s providence and moral governance. In like manner, when Justin speaks of the Son as the minister of God, it is with direct reference to those numerous passages of the Old Testament, in which a ministering angelic presence is more or less characterized by the titles and attributes of Divine Perfection. And, in the use of this emblematical diction they were countenanced (not to mention the Apocalypse) by the almost sacred authority of the platonizing books of Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus; works so highly revered by the Alexandrian Church as to be put into the hands of Catechumens as a preparation for inspired Scripture, contrary to the discipline observed in the neighbouring Church of Jerusalem.
The following are additional instances of Platonic language in the early Fathers; though the reader will scarcely perceive at first sight what is the fault in them, unless he happens to know the defective or perverse sense in which philosophy or heresy used them. For instance, Justin speaks of the Word as “fulfilling the Father’s will.” Clement calls Him “the Thought or Reflection of God”; and in another place, “the Second Principle of all things,” the Father Himself being the First. Elsewhere he speaks of the Son as an “all-perfect, all-holy, all-sovereign, all-authoritative, supreme, and all-searching nature, reaching close upon the sole Almighty.” In like manner Origen speaks of the Son as being “the immediate Creator, and as it were, Artificer of the world”; and the Father, “the Origin of it, as having committed to His Son its creation.” A bolder theology than this of Origen and Clement is adopted by five early writers connected with very various schools of Christian teaching; none of whom, however, are of especial authority in the Church. They explained the Scripture doctrine of the generation of the Word to mean, His manifestation at the beginning of the world as distinct from God; a statement, which, by weakening the force of a dogmatic formula which implies our Lord’s Divine Nature, might perhaps lend some accidental countenance after their day to the Arian denial of it. These subjects will come before us in the next chapter.
I have now, perhaps, sufficiently accounted for the apparent liberality of the Alexandrian School; which notwithstanding, was strict and uncompromising, when its system is fairly viewed as a whole, and with reference to its objects, and as distinct from that rival and imitative philosophy, to be mentioned in the next section, which rose out of it at the beginning of the third century, and with which it is by some writers improperly confounded. That its principles were always accurately laid, or the conduct of its masters nicely adjusted to them, need not be contended; or that they opposed themselves with an exact impartiality to every form of error which assailed the Church; or that they duly entered into and soundly applied the Jewish Scriptures; or that in conducting the Economy they were altogether free from an ambitious imitation of the Apostles, nobly conceived indeed, but little becoming uninspired teachers. It may unreluctantly be confessed, wherever it can be proved, that their exoteric professions at times affected the purity of their esoteric doctrine, though this remark scarcely applies to their statements on the subject of the Trinity; and that they indulged a boldness of inquiry, such as innocence prompts, rashness and irreverence corrupt, and experience of its mischievous consequences is alone able to repress. Still all this, and much more than this, were it to be found, weighs as nothing against the mass of testimonies producible from extant documents in favour of the real orthodoxy of their creed. Against a multitude of the very strongest and most explicit declarations of the divinity of Christ, some of which will be cited in their proper place, but a very few apparent exceptions to the strictest language of technical theology can be gathered from their writings, and these are sufficiently explained by the above considerations. And further, such is the high religious temper which their works exhibit, as to be sufficient of itself to convince the Christian inquirer, that they would have shrunk from the deliberate blasphemy with which Arius in the succeeding century assailed and scoffed at the awful majesty of his Redeemer.
Origen, in particular, that man of strong heart, who has paid for the unbridled freedom of his speculations on other subjects of theology, by the multitude of grievous and unfair charges which burden his name with posterity, protests, by the forcible argument of a life devoted to God’s service, against his alleged connexion with the cold disputatious spirit, and the unprincipled domineering ambition, which are the historical badges of the heretical party. Nay, it is a remarkable fact that it was he who discerned the heresy outside the Church on its first rise, and actually gave the alarm, sixty years before Arius’s day. Here let it suffice to set down in his vindication the following facts, which may be left to the consideration of the reader;—first, that his habitual hatred of heresy and concern for heretics were such, as to lead him, even when left an orphan in a stranger’s house, to withdraw from the praying and teaching of one of them, celebrated for his eloquence, who was in favour with his patroness and other Christians of Alexandria; that all through his long life he was known throughout Christendom as the especial opponent of false doctrine, in its various shapes; and that his pupils, Gregory, Athenodorus, and Dionysius, were principal actors in the arraignment of Paulus, the historical forerunner of Arius;—next, that his speculations, extravagant as they often were, related to points not yet determined by the Church, and, consequently, were really, what he frequently professed them to be, inquiries;—further, that these speculations were for the most part ventured in matters of inferior importance, certainly not upon the sacred doctrines which Arius afterwards impugned, and in regard to which even his enemy Jerome allows him to be orthodox;—that the opinions which brought him into disrepute in his lifetime concerned the creation of the world, the nature of the human soul, and the like;—that his opinions, or rather speculations, on these subjects, were imprudently made public by his friends;—that his writings were incorrectly transcribed even in his lifetime, according to his own testimony;—that after his death, Arian interpolations appear to have been made in some of his works now lost, upon which the subsequent Catholic testimony of his heterodoxy is grounded;—that, on the other hand, in his extant works, the doctrine of the Trinity is cleanly avowed, and in particular, our Lord’s Divinity energetically and variously enforced;—and lastly, that in matter of fact, the Arian party does not seem to have claimed him, or appealed to him in self-defence, till thirty years after the first rise of the heresy, when the originators of it were already dead, although they had showed their inclination to shelter themselves behind celebrated names, by the stress they laid on their connexion with the martyr Lucian. But if so much can be adduced in exculpation of Origen from any grave charge of heterodoxy, what accusation can be successfully maintained against his less suspected fellow-labourers in the polemical school? so that, in concluding this part of the subject, we may with full satisfaction adopt the judgment of Jerome:—“It may be that they erred in simplicity, or that they wrote in another sense, or that their writings were gradually corrupted by unskilful transcribers; or certainly before Arius, like ‘the sickness that destroyeth in the noon-day,’ was born in Alexandria, they made statements innocently and incautiously, which are open to the misinterpretation of the perverse.”