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Testament was fixed, the truths of the cross fully and eternally revealed, without mixture or sanction of human error. The orb of Light was hung up, whatever error darkened men's horizon beneath it. But in the multitude, those philosophic tendencies remained, and Christianity had to meet them; and some minds were speedily brought into her bosom deeply tinctured with them, and soon many were beguiled from the onlórntos, the simplicity of Christ. Heresy entered with philosophy. Learned converts from Paganism brought with them, from their schools, the habit of subtle speculation ; Gnostic, Cabbalistic, Neoplatonic allegory began to be in fashion; professedly Christian teachers contended with unbaptized Pagans for the palm of philosophy; that is, they claimed it for Christianity as a thing to be desired, and the Christian fathers sought to maintain a philosophic reputation.
Some, indeed, opposed this tendency; in the view of Irenæus and Tertullian it was hazardous to combine philosophy with Christianity;* Arnobius and Lactantius also deemed philosophy a superfluous study, and adverse to Christianity.t Omnem hæresim a philosophia subornari, was the declaration of Tertullian ;I but notwithstanding the repeated and remarkably earnest warnings of the apostles, especially of Paul, on this subject, the prevalent and increasing opinion was very different. The combination of philosophy with Christianity was deemed by the Alexandrian fathers both salutary and necessary. They held, indeed, that both were derived from the same divine source, Justin Martyr affirming that the Logos, previously to his incarnation, had revealed himself to the philosophers of antiquity.Ş To study the philosophy of the Greeks, and to avail themselves of it, was, in their opinion, simply to collect the treasures of divine wisdom scattered through the world, either from the light of revelation or the inspiration of the Logos, and to offer them again at the altar from which they had been stolen.||
For this and other reasons, Clement of Alexandria even considered the Pagan philosophy as an introduction to Christianity.
* Muenscher, Elements of Dogmatic History, $ 17. † Tenneman, Manual Hist. Phil. $ 225.
Vitringa De Hæresibus Natis, L. IV. c. 9. § Tenneman, § 224, 226. i Brucker, Hist. Crit. de Philos. Veterum Christianor. Tom. III. pp.
His sentiments on this point may be gathered from the following declaration. “As the husbandman first waters the soil, and then casts in his seed, so the notions, which I derive out of the writings of the Gentiles, serve first to water and soften the earthy parts of the soul, that the spiritual seed may be the better cast in, and take vital root in the minds of men."* In this passage, we may measure something of the influence of philosophy over the Christianity of the early ages; and it is by the prevalence of such a spirit, that we account partly for the manner in which the Gnostic heresies sprung up. A strange preparation indeed,—this baptism of the soul in the troubled waters of Epicurean, Pythagorean, Aristotelian and Platonic mysteries. A strange and monstrous preparation for the severe and simple verities of the gospel! What should we think, nowadays, of preparing for the effective study of Christianity by getting the mind imbued with the puerilities of the same philosophy !+ This Alexandrian Eclecticism was pursued and cultivated, not only in the porch of the temple, but in the sanctuary; not only in the schools but in the bosom of the church. And to such a degree did they carry this disposition, in the mistaken view of recommending Christianity to the heathen world, by showing its supposed affinities with heathen philosophy, which they asserted to have been originally derived from it, that it would not be strange if they themselves merited the accusation, which Clemens Alexandrinus brings against the heretics, of being far more anxious to appear to be philosophers than really and truly to philosophize; more desirous to gain the reputation of philosophy than the reality. Inani ergo sapientiæ opinione elati, perpetuo litigant, aperte ostendentes se magis curare ut videantur philosophi, quam ut philosophantur. I
* Clemens Alexandrinus, Stromata, I.
+ See the excellent remarks of Milner on Pantænus and Clemens Alexandrinus. Church History, Cent. III. ch. 3, 4.
I Clemens Alex. Stromata, Lib. VII. 16. contains a vigorous delineation of the compounded mental and moral obliquity of the Gnostic heresiarchs. We give merely the Latin translation. Semper enim id potius sumunt quod eis visum fuerit esse evidentius quam quod dictum est a Domino per prophetas, et ab Evangelis quodque Apostolorum estimonio comprobatum est et confirmatum. Cum viderent ergo sibi imminere periculum, non de uno dogmate, sed de
Now in considering and accounting for the influence of Gnosticism upon Christianity, our point of view is of the greatest importance. We are not asking what it would have been upon men accustomed to the doctrines of the gospel, and imbued with its spirit, but what it was upon men to whom those doctrines themselves were new, and the books in which they were taught new also. The various errors of the Gnostics appear to us, in the light of the whole New Testament, so wicked, so absurd, so monstrous, some of their systems are such complicated and incredible mixtures of Paganism, Philosophy, Christianity and Oriental fiction, that we are at a loss to conceive how they could have commended themselves to any minds that had once known the truth as it is in Jesus. But variety hath ever been more to the taste of men than simplicity. In that age men were so accustomed to form their religious schemes for themselves, that they could not resist the inclination to attach the fungi of their own speculations to the system of gospel truth. The New Testament form of Christianity was too unadorned, severe, simple, casting down imaginations, to suit their diseased habits of thought and feeling. It was too independent of their own opinions, too absolute and careless in the rejection of their own wisdom. They would not have a revelation which should speak from the mind of the Supreme Being alone, but one which should at least have passed through the cloud and sea of their own wild theories and suppositions.
There was a great difference between the authority of revelation then and now; and this we must take distinctly into view, in attempting to measure and account for the influence of Gnosticism upon Christianity. That “there must be heresies among you” was inevitable from the habits of philosophy, falsely so called, unchecked by the powerful resistance, presented for us in the complete and acknowledged canon of the New Testament. The parable of our Lord gives us the history of the whole matter. The Gnostic heresies were sowed along with the good seed of the gospel, and in the midst of it. Heresy and truth therefore sprung up together; whereas, if the doctrines of the gospel had had time to grow up first and get strongly rooted, and vigorous, then such seeds of error would never have come up at all, or else would have proved only a puny and stunted growth of underweeds. As it was, they grew up into a great and strong crop, and the corn and the vetches were bound in the same sheaves, and sent to the same mill, and ground up together for the food of the Christian church; so that the poisons and the medicines of the soul were at once digested and circulated, and produced their appropriate hereditary consequences in a diseased and spurious Christianity for many generations.
conservanda hæresi, non veritatem invenire, (nam cum ea quæ sunt in medio posita et in promptu apud nos legerunt, tanquam vilia ea contempserunt,) sed quod est commune in fide
superare contendentes, excesserunt a veritate.
We are to remember, that however monstrous the systems of the Gnostics appear to us, they presented to the mind of the ancient world, common or philosophic, no greater absurdities, crudities, or puerilities, than all men were accustomed to from childhood, in the various forms of Paganism and Pagan philosophy in which they had been educated. At the same time the genius of Gnosticism was bold and free in its excursions into the spiritual world, giving play to the imagination, and presenting, altogether, such an array of gorgeous attraction as could not but be alluring to minds of a contemplative cast. The want of proof of its dogmas, Mr. Taylor has with a good deal of truth remarked, constitutes one of its peculiar charms.
INFLUENCE OF GNOSTICISM ON CHRISTIANITY. The method of the fathers in the defence and exposition of Christianity contributed not a little to the growth of error. They were much in the habit of answering objections and making apologies, instead of so preaching Christ and his cross, as to have a great multitude of principles considered as granted. There is, in this respect, a prodigious difference between the aspect of Christianity in the New Testament, and in the writings of the chosen expositors of the Christian scheme, after the age of the apostles. And this constitutes also a great difference between their position and ours. Principles were doubtfully fixed; the world was steeped in Paganism and Pagan philosophy; and into this same darkness the early Christian writers seem themselves to have retired backward, from the very foot of the cross, from the very blaze of inspiration. To step out from the New Testament into the writings of the fathers, is to step from a region of light, order, certainty and beauty, into a region of dim, disastrous twilight, where, as the shades of evening gather, the forms of superstition thicken, and the common sense, and the simple spiritual sense, so rich and full in the pages of the New Testament, almost cease from existence. The forms of divine truth, that is, of truth revealed through the medium of the cross, are dim and indistinct. In proof of this let any one look through the writings of the fathers to trace the great doctrine of justification by faith, so early lost, and at length so profoundly, in the Romish system, and so late discovered in the glorious Reformation, after more than a thousand years. Let any sound-minded Christian take up any work of any Christian father, the most evangelical, and compare it with any treatise, practical or speculative, of Baxter, Howe, Leighton, or other modern Christian writers, and he will be sensible of the vast inferiority of the first to these last ages of Christianity, in the knowledge and possession of the truth and spirit of the Scriptures. There is, it may be, quite as strong a contrast as between the books of the Jewish prophets and those of the fathers, a contrast depicted with very great power and beauty by Mr. Taylor. “It must be acknowledged,” he observes, “ that the writers of the ancient dispensation were such as those should be, who were looking onward towards the bright day of gospel splendor; while the early Christian doctors were just such as one might well expect to find those who were looking onward toward that deep night of superstition which covered Europe during the middle ages. The dawn is seen to be gleaming upon the foreheads of the one class of writers; while a sullen gloom overshadows the brows of the other."*
We can add nothing to the power of this picture, though we might add much for the corroboration of its truth. The errors of the fathers, and their mode of philosophizing must doubtless be regarded both as cause and consequence of the prevalence of the Gnostic heresy and the Gnostic sentiment. Here, however, we do not limit our declaration to the spread of heresies, declared as such by the church, but refer likewise to the tincture of Gnosticism, or rather the baptism into it, received by some of the fathers, independent of the Gnostic heretics, from the same original sources, from which those heretics gathered their monstrous schemes. From Justin Martyr down to Origen, there appears a series of Platonizing and sometimes Orientalizing
* Ancient Christianity, p. 230.