CHAPTER I. THE ECCLESIASTICAL WRITERS. By |the Fathers| we understand the writers of the ancient Christian Church. The name is, however, of rather vague application, for though generally employed to designate only the ecclesiastical authors of the first six centuries, it is extended, occasionally, to distinguished theologians who flourished in the middle ages. The fathers of the second and third centuries have a strong claim on our attention. Living on the verge of apostolic times, they were acquainted with the state of the Church when it had recently passed from under the care of its inspired founders; and, as witnesses to its early traditions, their testimony is of peculiar value. But the period before us produced comparatively few authors, and a considerable portion of its literature has perished. There have been modern divines, such as Calvin and Baxter, who have each left behind a more voluminous array of publications than now survives from all the fathers of these two hundred years. Origen was by far the most prolific of the writers who flourished during this interval, but the greater number of his productions have been lost; and yet those which remain, if translated into English, would amount to nearly triple the bulk of our authorised version of the Bible. His extant works are, however, more extensive than all the other memorials of this most interesting section of the history of the Church. Among the earliest ecclesiastical writers after the close of the first century is Polycarp of Smyrna. He is said to have been a disciple of the Apostle John, and hence he is known as one of the Apostolic Fathers. [365:1] An epistle of his addressed to the Philippians, and designed to correct certain vices and errors which had been making their appearance, is still preserved. It seems to have been written towards the middle of the second century; [365:2] its style is simple; and its general tone worthy of a man who had enjoyed apostolic tuition. Its venerable author suffered martyrdom about A.D.167, [365:3] at the advanced age of eighty-six. [365:4] Justin Martyr was contemporary with Polycarp. He was a native of Samaria, and a Gentile by birth; he had travelled much; he possessed a well-cultivated mind; and he had made himself acquainted with the various systems of philosophy which were then current. He could derive no satisfaction from the wisdom of the pagan theorists; but, one day, as he walked, somewhat sad and pensive, near the sea shore, a casual meeting with an aged stranger led him to turn his thoughts to the Christian revelation. The individual, with whom he had this solitary and important interview, was a member and, perhaps, a minister of the Church. After pointing out to Justin the folly of mere theorising, and recommending him to study the Old Testament Scriptures, as well on account of their great antiquity as their intrinsic worth, he proceeded to expatiate on the nature and excellence of the gospel. [366:1] The impression now made upon the mind of the young student was never afterwards effaced; he became a decided Christian; and, about A.D.165, finished his career by martyrdom. Justin is the first writer whose contributions to ecclesiastical literature are of considerable extent. Some of the works ascribed to him are unquestionably the productions of others; but there is no reason to doubt the genuineness of his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, and of the two Apologies addressed to the Emperors, [366:2] Though the meeting with Trypho is said to have occurred at Ephesus, it is now perhaps impossible to determine whether it ever actually took place, or whether the Dialogue is only the report of an imaginary discussion. It serves, however, to illustrate the mode of argument then adopted in the controversy between the Jews and the disciples, and throws much light upon the state of Christian theology. Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius appear to have been the Emperors to whom the Apologies are addressed. In these appeals to Imperial justice the calumnies against the Christians are refuted, whilst the simplicity of their worship and the purity of their morality are impressively described. Justin, even after his conversion, still wore the philosopher's cloak, and continued to cherish an undue regard for the wisdom of the pagan sages. His mind never was completely emancipated from the influence of a system of false metaphysics; and thus it was that, whilst his views of various doctrines of the gospel remained confused, his allusions to them are equivocal, if not contradictory. But it has been well remarked that conscience, rather than science, guided many of the fathers; and the case of Justin demonstrates the truth of the observation. He possessed an extensive knowledge of the Scriptures; and though his theological views were not so exact or so perspicuous as they might have been, had he been trained up from infancy in the Christian faith, or had he studied the controversies which subsequently arose, it is beyond doubt that his creed was substantially evangelical. He had received the truth |in the love of it,| and he counted not his life dear in the service of his Divine Master. The Epistle to Diognetus
, frequently included amongst the works of Justin, is apparently the production of an earlier writer. Its author, who styles himself |a disciple of apostles,| designed by it to promote the conversion of a friend; his own views of divine truth are comparatively correct and clear; and in no uninspired memorial of antiquity are the peculiar doctrines of the gospel exhibited with greater propriety and beauty. Appended also to the common editions of the works of Justin are the remains of a few somewhat later writers, namely, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Hernias. Tatian was a disciple of Justin; [367:1] Athenagoras was a learned man of Athens; Theophilus is said to have been one of the pastors of Antioch; and of Hermas nothing whatever is known. The tracts of these authors relate almost entirely to the controversy between Christianity and Paganism. Whilst they point out the folly and falsehood of the accusations so frequently preferred against the brethren, they press the gospel upon the acceptance of the Gentiles with much earnestness, and support its claims by a great variety of arguments.
The tract known as the Epistle of Barnabas was probably composed in A.D.135. [367:2] It is the production apparently of a convert from Judaism who took special pleasure in allegorical interpretations of Scripture. Hermas, the author of the little work called Pastor, or The Shepherd, is a writer of much the same character. He was, in all likelihood, the brother of Pius, [368:1] who flourished about the middle of the second century, and who was, perhaps, the first or second individual who was officially designated Bishop of Rome. The writings of Papias, said to have been pastor of Hierapolis in the time of Polycarp, are no longer extant. [368:2] The works of Hegesippus, of a somewhat later date, and treating of the subject of ecclesiastical history, have also disappeared. [368:3]
Irenaeus of Lyons is the next writer who claims our special notice. He was originally connected with Asia Minor; and in his youth he is said to have enjoyed the tuition of Polycarp of Smyrna. We cannot tell when he left his native country, or what circumstances led him to settle on the banks of the Rhone; but we know that, towards the termination of the reign of Marcus Aurelius, he was appointed by the Gallic Christians to visit the Roman Church on a mission of importance. The Celtic language, still preserved in the Gaelic or Irish, was then spoken in France, [368:4] and Irenaeus found it necessary to qualify himself for the duties of a preacher among the heathen by studying the barbarous dialect. His zeal, energy, and talent were duly appreciated; soon after the death of the aged Pothinus he became the chief pastor of Lyons; and for many years he exercised considerable influence throughout the whole of the Western Church. When the Paschal controversy created such excitement, and when Victor of Rome threatened to rend the Christian commonwealth by his impetuous and haughty bearing, Irenaeus interposed, and to some extent succeeded in moderating the violence of the Italian prelate. He was the author of several works, [369:1] but his only extant production is a treatise |Against Heresies.| It is divided into five books, four of which exist only in a Latin version; [369:2] and it contains a lengthened refutation of the Valentinians and other Gnostics.
Irenaeus is commonly called the disciple of Polycarp; but it is reported that he was also under the tuition of a less intelligent preceptor, Papias of Hierapolis. [369:3] This teacher, who has been already mentioned, and who was the author of a work now lost, entitled, |The Explanations of the Discourses of the Lord,| is noted as the earliest ecclesiastical writer who held the doctrine of the personal reign of Christ at Jerusalem during the millennium. |These views,| says Eusebius, |he appears to have adopted in consequence of having misunderstood the apostolic narratives.... For he was a man of very slender intellect, as is evident from his discourses.| [369:4] His pupil Irenaeus possessed a much superior capacity; but even his writings are not destitute of puerilities; and it is not improbable that he derived some of the errors to be found in them from his weak-minded teacher. [369:5]
Irenaeus is supposed to have died in the beginning of the third century; and, shortly before that date, by far the most vigorous and acute writer who had yet appeared among the fathers, began to attract attention. This was the celebrated TERTULLIAN. He was originally a heathen, [370:1] and he appears in early life to have been engaged in the profession of a lawyer. At that time, as afterwards, there was constant intercourse between Rome and Carthage; [370:2] Tertullian seems to have been well acquainted with both these great cities; and he had probably resided for several years in the capital of the Empire. [370:3] But most of his public life was, perhaps, spent in Carthage, the place of his birth. In the beginning of the third century clerical celibacy was beginning to be fashionable; and yet Tertullian, though a presbyter, [370:4] was married; for two of his tracts are addressed To his Wife; and it is apparent from his works that then no law of the Church prohibited ecclesiastics from entering into wedlock.
The extant productions of this writer are numerous; and, if rendered into our language, would form a very portly volume. But though several parts of them have found translators, the whole have never yet appeared in English; and, of some pieces, the most accomplished scholar would scarcely undertake to furnish at once a literal and an intelligible version. [370:5] His style is harsh, his transitions are abrupt, and his inuendos and allusions most perplexing. He must have been a man of very bilious temperament, who could scarcely distinguish a theological opponent from a personal enemy; for he pours forth upon those who differ from him whole torrents of sarcasm and invective. [371:1] His strong passion, acting upon a fervid imagination, completely overpowered his judgment; and hence he deals so largely in exaggeration, that, as to many matters of fact, we cannot safely depend upon his testimony. His tone is dictatorial and dogmatic; and, though we cannot doubt his piety, we must feel that his spirit is somewhat repulsive and ungenial. Whilst he was sadly deficient in sagacity, he was very much the creature of impulse; and thus it was that he was so superstitious, so bigoted, and so choleric. But he was, beyond question, possessed of erudition and of genius; and when he advocates a right principle, he can expound, defend, and illustrate it with great ability and eloquence.
Tertullian is commonly known as the earliest of the Latin fathers. [371:2] The writer who first attempted to supply the rulers of the world with a Christian literature in their own tongue encountered a task of much difficulty. It was no easy matter to conduct theological controversies in a language which was not remarkable for flexibility, and which had never before been employed in such discussions; and Tertullian seems to have often found it necessary to coin unwonted forms of expression, or rather to invent an ecclesiastical nomenclature. The ponderous Latin, hitherto accustomed to speak only of Jupiter and the gods, engages somewhat awkwardly in its new vocation; and yet contrives to proclaim, with wonderful power, the great thoughts for which it must now find utterance. Several years after his appearance as an author, Tertullian lapsed into Montanism -- a species of heresy peculiarly attractive to a man of his rugged and austere character. Some of his works bear clear traces of this change of sentiment; but others furnish no internal evidences warranting us to pronounce decisively respecting the date of their composition. It is remarkable that though he identified himself with a party under the ban of ecclesiastical proscription, his works still continued to be held in high repute, and to be perused with avidity by those who valued themselves on their zeal for orthodoxy. It is recorded of one of the most influential of the Catholic bishops of the third century that he read a portion of them daily; and, when calling for his favourite author, he is reported to have said -- |Give me the Master.| [372:1]
Tertullian flourished at a period when ecclesiastical usurpation was beginning to produce some of its bitter fruits, and when religion was rapidly degenerating from its primitive purity. [372:2] His works, which treat of a great variety of topics interesting to the Christian student, throw immense light on the state of the Church in his generation. His best known production is his Apology, in which he pleads the cause of the persecuted disciples with consummate talent, and urges upon the state the equity and the wisdom of toleration. He expounds the doctrine of the Trinity more lucidly than any preceding writer; he treats of Prayer, of Repentance, and of Baptism; he takes up the controversy with the Jews; [372:3] and he assails the Valentinians and other heretics. But the way of salvation by faith seems to have been very indistinctly apprehended by him, so that he cannot be safely trusted as a theologian. He had evidently no clear conception of the place which works ought to occupy according to the scheme of the gospel; and hence he sometimes speaks as if pardon could be purchased by penance, by fasting, or by martyrdom.
Clement of Alexandria was contemporary with Tertullian. Like him, he was a Gentile by birth; but we know nothing of the circumstances connected with his conversion. In early times Alexandria was one of the great marts of literature and science; its citizens were noted for their intellectual culture; and, when a Church was formed there, learned men began to pass over to the new religion in considerable numbers. It was, in consequence, deemed expedient to establish an institute where catechumens of this class, before admission to baptism, could be instructed in the faith by some well qualified teacher. The plan of the seminary seems to have been gradually enlarged; and it soon supplied education to candidates for the ministry. Towards the close of the second century, Pantaenus, a distinguished scholar, had the charge of it; and Clement, who had been his pupil, became his successor as its president. Some of the works of this writer have perished, and his only extant productions are a discourse entitled |What rich man shall be saved?| his Address to the Greeks or Gentiles, his Paedagogue, and his Stromata. The hortatory Address is designed to win over the pagans from idolatry; the Paedagogue directs to Jesus, or the Word, as the great Teacher, and supplies converts with practical precepts for their guidance; whilst in the Stromata, or Miscellanies, we have a description of what he calls the Gnostic or perfect Christian. He here takes occasion to attack those who, in his estimation, were improperly designated Gnostics, such as Basilides, Valentine, Marcion, and others.
Clement, as is apparent from his writings, was extensively acquainted with profane literature. But he formed quite too high an estimate of the value of the heathen philosophy, whilst he allegorized Scripture in a way as dangerous as it was absurd. By the serpent which deceived Eve, according to Clement, |pleasure, an earthly vice which creeps upon the belly, is allegorically represented.| [374:1] Moses, speaking allegorically, if we may believe this writer, called the Divine Wisdom the tree of life planted in paradise; by which paradise we may understand the world, in which all the works of creation were called into being. [374:2] He even interprets the ten commandments allegorically. Thus, by adultery, he understands a departure from the true knowledge of the Most High, and by murder, a violation of the truth respecting God and His eternal existence. [374:3] It is easy to see how Scripture, by such a system of interpretation, might be tortured into a witness for any extravagance.
In the early part of the third century Hippolytus of Portus exerted much influence by his writings. It was long believed that, with the exception of some fragments and a few tracts of little consequence, the works of this father had ceased to exist; but, as stated in a preceding chapter, [374:4] one of his most important publications, the |Philosophumena, or Refutation of all Heresies,| has been recently recovered. The re-appearance of this production after so many centuries of oblivion is an extraordinary fact; and its testimony relative to historical transactions of deep interest connected with the early Church of Rome, has created quite a sensation among the students of ecclesiastical literature.
Hippolytus was the disciple of Irenaeus, and one of the soundest theologians of his generation. His works, which are written in Greek, illustrate his learning, his acuteness, and his eloquence. His views on some matters of ecclesiastical discipline were, indeed, too rigid; and, by a writer of the fifth century, [375:1] he has been described as an abettor of Novatianism; but his zeal and piety are universally admitted. He is said to have lost his life in the cause of Christianity; and though he attests the heretical teaching of two of her chief pastors, the Church of Rome still honours him as a saint and a martyr.
Minucius Felix was the contemporary of Hippolytus. He was a Roman lawyer, and a convert from paganism. In his Dialogue, entitled |Octavius,| the respective merits of Christianity and heathenism are discussed with much vivacity. In point of style this little work is surpassed by none of the ecclesiastical writings of the period.
Another and a still more distinguished author, contemporary with Hippolytus, was ORIGEN. He was born at Alexandria about A.D.185; his father Leonides, who was a teacher of rhetoric, was a member of the Church; and his son enjoyed the advantages of an excellent elementary education. Origen, when very young, was required daily to commit prescribed portions of the Word of God to memory; and the child soon became intensely interested in the study of the sacred oracles. The questions which he proposed to his father, as he repeated his appointed tasks, displayed singular precocity of intellect; and Leonides rejoiced exceedingly as he observed from time to time the growing indications of his extraordinary genius. But, before Origen reached maturity, his good parent fell a victim to the intolerance of the imperial laws. In the persecution under Septimius Severus, when the young scholar was about seventeen years of age, Leonides was put into confinement, and then beheaded. He had a wife and seven children who were likely to be left destitute by his death; but Origen, who was his first born, afraid lest his constancy should be overcome by the prospect of a beggared family, wrote a letter to him when he was in prison to encourage him to martyrdom. |Stand steadfast, father,| said the ardent youth, |and take care not to desert your principles on our account.| At this crisis he would have exposed himself to martyrdom, had not his mother hid his clothes, and thus prevented him from appearing in public.
When Leonides was put to death his property was confiscated, and his family reduced to poverty. But Origen now attracted the notice of a rich and noble lady of Alexandria, who received him into her house, and became his patron. He did not, however, remain long under her roof; as he was soon able to earn a maintenance by teaching. He continued, meanwhile, to apply himself with amazing industry to the acquisition of knowledge; and at length he began to be regarded as one of the most learned of the Christians. So great was his celebrity as a divine that, more than once during his life, whole synods of foreign bishops solicited his advice and interference in the settlement of theological controversies.
Whilst Origen, by intense study, was constantly adding to his intellectual treasures, he also improved his mind by travelling. When about twenty-six years of age he made a journey to Rome; and he subsequently visited Arabia, Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, and Greece. As he passed through Palestine in A.D.228, when he was in the forty-third year of his age, he was ordained a presbyter by some of the bishops of that country. He was now teacher of the catechetical school of Alexandria -- an office in which he had succeeded Clement -- and his ordination by the foreign pastors gave great offence to Demetrius, his own bishop. It has been said that this haughty churchman was galled by the superior reputation of the great scholar; and Origen, on his return to Egypt, was exposed to an ecclesiastical persecution. An indiscreet act of his youth was now converted into a formidable accusation, [377:1] whilst some incautious speculations in which he had indulged were urged as evidences of his unsoundness in the faith. His ordination was pronounced invalid; he was deprived of his appointment as president of the catechetical school; and he was excommunicated as a heretic. He now retired to Caesarea, where he appears to have spent the greater portion of the remainder of his life. The sentence of excommunication was announced by Demetrius to the Churches abroad; but though it was approved at Rome and elsewhere, it was not recognised in Palestine, Phoenice, Arabia, and Achaia. At Caesarea, Origen established a theological seminary such as that over which he had so long presided at Alexandria; and, in this institute, some of the most eminent pastors of the third century received their education.
This great man throughout life practised extraordinary self-denial. His clothing was scarcely sufficient to protect him from the cold; he slept on the ground; he confined himself to the simplest fare; and for years he persisted in going barefoot. [377:2] But his austerities did not prevent him from acquiring a world-wide reputation. Pagan philosophers attended his lectures, and persons of the highest distinction sought his society. When Julia Mammaea, the mother of Alexander Severus, invited him to visit her, and when, in compliance with this summons, he proceeded to Antioch [377:3] escorted by a military guard, he must have been an object of no little curiosity to the Imperial courtiers. It could now no longer be said that the Christians were an illiterate generation; as, in all that brilliant throng surrounding the throne of the Master of the Roman world, there was not, perhaps, one to be compared, with the poor catechist of Alexandria for varied and profound scholarship. But his theological taste was sadly vitiated by his study of the pagan philosophy. Clement, his early instructor, led him to entertain far too high an opinion of its excellence; and a subsequent teacher, Ammonius Saccas, the father of New Platonism, thoroughly imbued his mind with many of his own dangerous principles. According to Ammonius all systems of religion and philosophy contain the elements of truth; and it is the duty of the wise man to trace out and exhibit their harmony. The doctrines of Plato formed the basis of his creed, and it required no little ingenuity, to shew how all other theories quadrated with the speculations of the Athenian sage. To establish his views, he was obliged to draw much on his imagination, and to adopt modes of exegesis the most extravagant and unwarrantable. The philosophy of Ammonius exerted a very pernicious influence upon Origen, and seduced him into not a few of those errors which have contributed so greatly to lower his repute as a theologian.
Origen was a most prolific author; and, if all his works were still extant, they would be far more voluminous than those of any other of the fathers. But most of his writings have been lost; and, in not a few instances, those which remain have reached us either in a very mutilated form, or in a garbled Latin version. His treatise |Against Celsus,| which was composed when he was advanced in life, and which is by far the most valuable of his existing works, has come down to us in a more perfect state than, perhaps, any of his other productions. It is a defence of Christianity in reply to the publication of a witty heathen philosopher who wrote against it in the time of the Antonines. [378:1] Of his celebrated |Hexapla,| to which he is said to have devoted much of his time for eight and twenty years, only some fragments have been preserved. This great work appears to have been undertaken to meet the cavils of the Jews against the Septuagint -- the Greek translation of the Old Testament in current use in the days of the apostles, and still most appreciated by the Christians. The unbelieving Israelites now pronounced it a corrupt version; and, that all might have an opportunity of judging for themselves, Origen exhibited the text in six consecutive columns -- the first, containing the original Hebrew -- the second, the same in Greek letters -- and the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth, four of the most famous of the Greek translations, including the Septuagint. [379:1] The labour employed in the collation of manuscripts, when preparing this work, was truly prodigious. The expense, which must also have been great, is said to have been defrayed by Ambrosius, a wealthy Christian friend, who placed at the disposal of the editor the constant services of seven amanuenses. By his |Hexapla| Origen did much to preserve the purity of the sacred text, and he may be said to have thus laid the foundations of the science of Scripture criticism.
This learned writer cannot be trusted as an interpreter of the inspired oracles. Like the Jewish Cabbalists, of whom Philo, whose works he had diligently studied, [379:2] is a remarkable specimen, he neglects the literal sense of the Word, and betakes himself to mystical expositions. [379:3] In this way the divine record may be made to support any crotchet which happens to please the fancy of the commentator. Origen may, in fact, be regarded as the father of Christian mysticism; and, in after-ages, to a certain class of visionaries, especially amongst the monks, his writings long continued to present peculiar attractions.
On doctrinal points his statements are not always consistent, so that it is extremely difficult to form anything like a correct idea of his theological sentiments. Thus, on the subject of the Trinity, he sometimes speaks most distinctly in the language of orthodoxy, whilst again he employs phraseology which rather savours of the creed of Sabellius or of Arius. In his attempts to reconcile the gospel and his philosophy, he miserably compromised some of the most important truths of Scripture. The fall of man seems to be not unfrequently repudiated in his religious system; and yet, occasionally, it is distinctly recognized. [380:1] He maintained the pre-existence of human souls; he held that the stars are animated beings; he taught that all men shall ultimately attain happiness; and he believed that the devils themselves shall eventually be saved. [380:2] It is abundantly clear that Origen was a man of true piety. His whole life illustrates his self-denial, his single-mindedness, his delight in the Word of God, and his zeal for the advancement of the kingdom of Christ. In the Decian persecution he suffered nobly as a confessor; and the torture which he then endured seems to have hastened his demise. But with all his learning he was obviously deficient in practical sagacity; and though both his genius and his eloquence were of a high order, he possessed scarcely even an average share of prudence and common sense. His writings diffused, not the genial light of the Sun of Righteousness, but the mist and darkness of a Platonized Christianity. Though he induced many philosophers to become members of the Church, the value of these accessions was greatly deteriorated by the daring spirit of speculation which they were still encouraged to cultivate. Of his Christian courage, his industry, and his invincible perseverance, there can be no doubt. He closed a most laborious career at Tyre, A.D.254, in the seventieth year of his age.
About the time of the death of Origen, a Latin author, whose writings are still perused with interest, was beginning to attract much notice. CYPRIAN of Carthage, before his conversion to Christianity, was a professor of rhetoric and a gentleman of property. When he renounced heathenism, he is supposed to have reached the mature age of forty-five or forty-six; and as he possessed rank, talent, and popular eloquence, he was deemed no ordinary acquisition to the Church. About two years after his baptism, the chief pastor of the metropolis of the Proconsular Africa was removed by death; and Cyprian, by the acclamations of the Christian people, was called to the vacant office. At that time there seem to have been only eight presbyters, [381:1] or elders, connected with the bishopric of Carthage; but the city contained probably some hundreds of thousands of a population; and, though the episcopal dignity was not without its perils, it did not want the attractions of wealth and influence. The advancement of Cyprian gave great offence to the other elders, who appear to have conceived that one of themselves, on the ground of greater experience and more lengthened services, had a better title to promotion. Though the new bishop was sustained by the enthusiastic support of the multitude, the presbytery contrived, notwithstanding, to give him considerable annoyance. Five of them, constituting a majority, formed themselves into a regular opposition; and for several years the Carthaginian Church was distracted by the struggles between the bishop and his eldership.
The pastorate of Cyprian extended over a period of about ten years; but meanwhile persecution raged, and the bishop was obliged to spend nearly the one-third of his episcopal life in retirement and in exile. From his retreat he kept up a communication by letters with his flock. [382:1] The worship and constitution of the Church about the middle of the third century may be ascertained pretty clearly from the Cyprianic correspondence. Some of the letters addressed to the Carthaginian bishop, as well as those dictated by him, are still extant; and as he maintained an epistolary intercourse with Rome, Cappadocia, and other places, the documents known as the Cyprianic writings, [382:2] are amongst the most important of the ancient ecclesiastical memorials. This eminent pastor has also left behind him several short treatises on topics which were then attracting public attention. Among these may be mentioned his tracts on |The Unity of the Church,| |The Lord's Prayer,| |The Vanity of Idols,| |The Grace of God,| |The Dress of Virgins,| and |The Benefit of Patience.|
The writings of Cyprian have long been noted for their orthodoxy; and yet it must be admitted that his hierarchical prejudices stunted his charity and obscured his intellectual vision. Tertullian was his favourite author; and it is evident that he possessed much of the contracted spirit and of the stiff formalism of the great Carthaginian presbyter. He speaks in more exalted terms of the authority of bishops than any preceding writer. It is not improbable that the attempts of his discontented elders to curb his power inflamed his old aristocratic hauteur, and thus led to a reaction; and that, supported by the popular voice, he was tempted absurdly to magnify his office, and to stretch his prerogative beyond the bounds of its legitimate exercise. His name carried with it great influence, and from his time episcopal pretensions advanced apace.
Cyprian was martyred about A.D.258 in the Valerian persecution. As he was a man of rank, and perhaps personally related to some of the imperial officers at Carthage, he seems to have been treated, when a prisoner, with unusual respect and indulgence. On the evening before his death an elegant supper was provided for him, and he was permitted to enjoy the society of a numerous party of his friends. When he reached the spot where he was to suffer, he was subjected to no lingering torments; for his head was severed from his body by a single stroke of the executioner. [383:1]
The only other writer of note who flourished after Cyprian, in the third century, [383:2] was Gregory, surnamed Thaumaturgus, or The Wonder-Worker. He belonged to a pagan family of distinction; and, when a youth, was intended for the profession of the law; but, becoming acquainted with Origen at Caesarea in Palestine, he was induced to embrace the Christian faith, and relinquish flattering prospects of secular promotion. He became subsequently the bishop of Neo-Caesarea in Pontus. When he entered on his charge he is said to have had a congregation of only seventeen individuals; but his ministry must have been singularly successful; for, according to tradition, all the inhabitants of the city, with seventeen exceptions, were, at the time of his death, members of the Church. The reports respecting him are obviously exaggerated, and no credit can be attached to the narrative of his miracles. [384:1] He wrote several works, of which his |Panegyric on Origen,| and his |Paraphrase on Ecclesiastes,| are still extant. The genuineness of some other tracts ascribed to him may be fairly challenged.
The preceding account of the fathers of the second and third centuries may enable us to form some idea of the value of these writers as ecclesiastical authorities. Most of them had reached maturity before they embraced the faith of the gospel, so that, with a few exceptions, they wanted the advantages of an early Christian education. Some of them, before their conversion, had bestowed much time and attention on the barren speculations of the pagan philosophers; and, after their reception into the bosom of the Church, they still continued to pursue the same unprofitable studies. Cyprian, one of the most eloquent of these fathers, had been baptized only about two years before he was elected bishop of Carthage; and, during his comparatively short episcopate, he was generally in a turmoil of excitement, and had, consequently, little leisure for reading or mental cultivation. Such a writer is not entitled to command confidence as an expositor of the faith once delivered to the saints. Even in our own day, with all the facilities supplied by printing for the rapid accumulation of knowledge, no one would expect much spiritual instruction from an author who would undertake the office of an interpreter of Scripture two years after his conversion from heathenism. The fathers of the second and third centuries were not regarded as safe guides even by their Christian contemporaries. Tatian was the founder of a sect of extreme Teetotallers. [383:1] Tertullian, who, in point of learning, vigour, and genius, stands at the head of the Latin writers of this period, was connected with a party of gloomy fanatics. Origen, the most voluminous and erudite of the Greek fathers, was excommunicated as a heretic. If we estimate these authors, as they were appreciated by the early Church of Rome, we must pronounce their writings of little value. Tertullian, as a Montanist, was under the ban of the Roman bishop. Hippolytus could not have been a favourite with either Zephyrinus or Callistus, for he denounced both as heretics. Origen was treated by the Roman Church as a man under sentence of excommunication. Stephen deemed even Cyprian unworthy of his ecclesiastical fellowship, because the Carthaginian prelate maintained the propriety of rebaptizing heretics.
Nothing can be more unsatisfactory, or rather childish, than the explanations of Holy Writ sometimes given by these ancient expositors. According to Tertullian, the two sparrows mentioned in the New Testament [383:2] signify the soul and the body; [383:3] and Clemens Alexandrinus gravely pleads for marriage [383:4] from the promise-|Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.| [383:5] Cyprian produces, as an argument in support of the doctrine of the Trinity, that the Jews observed |the third, sixth, and ninth hours| as their |fixed and lawful seasons for prayer.| [383:6] Origen represents the heavenly bodies as literally engaged in acts of devotion. [386:1] If these authorities are to be credited, the Gihon, one of the rivers of Paradise, was no other than the Nile. [386:2] Very few of the fathers of this period were acquainted with Hebrew, so that, as a class, they were miserably qualified for the interpretation of the Scriptures. Even Origen himself must have had a very imperfect knowledge of the language of the Old Testament. [386:3] In consequence of their literary deficiencies, the fathers of the second and third centuries occasionally commit the most ridiculous blunders. Thus, Irenaeus tells us that the name Jesus in Hebrew consists of two letters and a half, and describes it as signifying |that Lord who contains heaven and earth!| [386:4] This father asserts also that the Hebrew word Adonai, or the Lord, denotes |utterable and wonderful.| [386:5] Clemens Alexandrinus is not more successful as an interpreter of the sacred tongue of the chosen people; for he asserts that Jacob was called Israel |because he had seen the Lord God,| [386:6] and he avers that Abraham means |the elect father of a sound!| [386:7] Justin Martyr errs egregiously in his references to the Old Testament; as he cites Isaiah for Jeremiah, [386:8] Zechariah for Malachi, [386:9] Zephaniah for Zechariah, [386:10] and Jeremiah for Daniel. [386:11] Irenaeus repeats, as an apostolic tradition, that when our Lord acted as a public teacher He was between forty and fifty years of age; [387:1] and Tertullian affirms that He was about thirty years of age at the time of His crucifixion. [387:2] The opinion of this same writer in reference to angels is still more extraordinary. He maintains that some of these beings, captivated by the beauty of the daughters of men, came down from heaven and married them; and that, out of complaisance to their brides, they communicated to them the arts of polishing and setting precious stones, of preparing cosmetics, and of using other appliances which minister to female vanity. [387:3] His ideas upon topics of a different character are equally singular. Thus, he affirms that the soul is corporeal, having length, breadth, height, and figure. [387:4] He even goes so far as to say that there is no substance which is not corporeal, and that God himself is a body. [387:5]
It would seem as if the Great Head of the Church permitted these early writers to commit the grossest mistakes, and to propound the most foolish theories, for the express purpose of teaching us that we are not implicitly to follow their guidance. It might have been thought that authors, who flourished on the borders of apostolic times, knew more of the mind of the Spirit than others who appeared in succeeding ages; but the truths of Scripture, like the phenomena of the visible creation, are equally intelligible to all generations. If we possess spiritual discernment, the trees and the flowers will display the wisdom and the goodness of God as distinctly to us as they did to our first parents; and, if we have the |unction from the Holy One,| we may enter into the meaning of the Scriptures as fully as did Justin Martyr or Irenaeus. To assist us in the interpretation of the New Testament, we have at command a critical apparatus of which they were unable to avail themselves. Jehovah is jealous of the honour of His Word, and He has inscribed in letters of light over the labours of its most ancient interpreters -- |CEASE YE FROM MAN.| The |opening of the Scriptures,| so as to exhibit their beauty, their consistency, their purity, their wisdom, and their power, is the clearest proof that the commentator is possessed of |the key of knowledge.| When tried by this test, Thomas Scott or Matthew Henry is better entitled to confidence than either Origen or Gregory Thaumaturgus. The Bible is its own safest expositor. |The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.|