« PreviousContinue »
authors whom others neither revere nor admire ; and if an able and clear-minded Professor of Geometry expose the tendencies of their system, it is, with many, a sufficient refutation to say, He does not pretend to be a learned man ; that is to say, he does not think a study of the Fathers' to be worth any great fraction of human life. Truly, in this way it would be hard to refute the claims of Chinese or Hindoo mythology.
Before entering further into Mr. Taylor's work, we think it best to dispatch at once what we have to say concerning its faults; faults, some of which, in any other work, would seem to us not small; but in this, to be quite swallowed up by the general importance of the controversy, and by the positive value of his contributions.
First: we will place that which we care least about, yet which it would seem like affectation to omit, the petty discharges of occasional guns against the voluntary system, * especially in his earlier parts. We are quite aware that this system was the only one which was or could be acted on, during the whole of the second and third century, as well as during the first. The Romanists of Ireland live under it, equally as do the congregational churches of England and America. It would be a clear infatuation to imagine, that the voluntary system will either compensate for a want of the spirit of Christ, or will effectually generate his influences. It is surely one thing to say, that a pure church of Christ is likely to be injured by receiving state patronage; that it ought not to desire others to be taxed for its enrichment; and that it ought not to barter away its discipline and its order for rank and money; and quite another thing to believe, that a church which has the voluntary system has all that is requisite for life and godliness. We feel, therefore, as free to comment on the errors of the ancient churches, as on those of Romish Ireland, although neither the one nor the other have the support of the civil power: nor can we imagine that this in any way affects our consistency as upholders of the voluntary system.
But it is surprising to us that Mr. Taylor can take so perverted a view of history, as to allege that the system of National Religion commenced at the Reformation. The assertion appears so amazing, that we must give his own words:-Vol. i.
447. * In vol. i. p. 9, the author speaks of the swamps of dissent, a phrase which we do not understand, except that it was meant to insult us, and to propitiate the clerical reader of his work. In the same page he says, that * the assumptions on which the modern congregational system rests,' will soon be shifted (sisted ?) anew, and brought to the test of Scripture.' We do not know what 'assumptions' he means, but we think that his candour ought to allow, that congregationalists are uniformly far more desirous than those whom he has joined, to bring their church práctices to the test of Scripture,
· Then the full corn in the ear. The gradual developement (commenced at the Reformation) of the genuine principle of NATIONAL RELIGIOUS EXISTENCE, which is just now struggling through its crisis, as well of argument as of political strife, but is destined to come out, shall be understood at length, and gratefully acknowledged and submitted to, as the true and only foundation of just, peaceful, beneficent, and permanent government. Then shall the meek inherit the carth.'
If any principle of government stands out on the surface of all ancient history, it is assuredly this; that all the nations of the world held religion to be a matter of national concern and control; and if there be any principle wholly new, introduced by Christianity, it is, that religion is primarily and essentially the concern of individual consciences, and must not be given up at the bidding of the state. The precepts of Christ are full of injunctions to disobey man rather than God, and of warnings to his disciples, that they must be ready to endure all things at the hands of rulers, rather than forfeit their faith in Him. The apostolic doctrine and practice followed in the same track, and exhibited to the world for the first time a religion dissociated from all bonds of state and country, and therefore capable of becoming truly Catholic. Is it possible that Mr. Taylor is blind to these facts ? Quite impossible, we think; yet how he could write the above passage, with the knowledge of them, we cannot conceive. But in another point of view, it is full of implied error; for, from Constantine downward, the National Church* was efficiently established, and persecuted both dissenters and unbelievers with abundant activity. At all events, the fact is clear, that this development of national religion, which our author so commends, is a movement in precisely the reverse direction to everything introduced by the Lord and his apostles. So far from being the carrying forward of a principle sanctioned by them, it is a working back into heathenism, and a virtual sanctioning of the tyranny which gave the bodies of saints to the executioner. But we shall have other opportunities of unfolding and establishing this truth.
Secondly: a considerable drawback against this work on ancient Christianity, viewed argumentatively, is, the apparent vacillation of the writer in bis estimate of characters. This has been often urged against him, but after considering his defence of himself, we cannot admit its validity. He says that he attacks only the Nicene system, and not the individuals who constructed the system; and that he may consistently apply honourable epithets
It was strictly national until the Romav empire fell in pieces ; as it did not include the Christians of Armenia, Babylonia, ludia, Abyssinia, &c., which were exterior to the Roman empire.
to the men. Yet he distinctly prefers the morality of Plato or Cicero to that of St. Jerome ; contrasts the Nicene fathers, as a body, with the Pharisees, and pronounces them to be decidedly worse than the latter, because the Pharisees did but corrupt a ritual religion, while the others corrupted a spiritual and a holier one.---(Vol. i. p. 429.) He arraigns them, in one out of several passages, in the following words : vol. i: p. 121. (The italics are
'I shall, as I confidently hope, succeed in affording the most convincing proof of the fact, that the Christian teachers, from the very first, and while they held the formal elements of truth, or, as it is called, orthodoxy, grossly misapprehended the genius and purport of Christianity ; and, as a consequence of this misapprehension, turned out of its course every Christian institute, and placed on a false foundation every principle of virtue; and thus transmuted the Christian system into a scheme which could find no other fixed form than that of a foul superstition and a lawless despotism.'-[We shall presently remark on the words, from the very first. ] Once more; p. 441, he
says, — No men of these times were better learned, none were more eloquent, than were many of the bishops and orators of the church; yet
every man of that critical era lent his utmost endeavours to the work of urging forward what should have been checked and repressed ; and while struggling to correct certain palpable abuses, yet every one fomented the very principles and cherished the institutions, whence, manifestly, these abuses had sprung.'
He elsewhere discusses the opposition offered to the superstitions of the day by Vigilantius, as likewise by Jovinian; and laments the fact, that all such men were irstantly set down as heretics, and denounced in the grossest and most violent language. Every Christian father of those ages signalizes himself in this course when opportunity offers, Augustine being neither last nor least in the same wretched work; (see vol. i. p. 445;) so that, in short, the fathers, according to our author, were so far from rising above their age, as to be besotted in their attachment to its worst elements, and unflinching in their bigotry against the few who would have stayed the plague. If we saw the leaders struggling against the stream, we might think that the age declined in spite of them; but the admired and revered spokesman of a declining age must surely be pre-eminent in its errors. With the Scripture in their hand, they deliberately went back into darkness. Under these circumstances, we think he has no right to attach honourable epithets to their names, such as must, in any case, at least imply that they were moving, foremost of their age, towards truth, instead of being foremost towards superstition and despotism;
sometimes dragging the age after them, with violent vituperation, if it did not go fast enough to ruin. More especially, it is unjustifiable to be lavish of respectful titles, when he is so keenly sensible of the mischief of over-esteeming these personages, as to write a book avowedly intended to brush away the halo from their forms.
Thirdly: while we desire not to assume the tone of superiors, we cannot but feel that there is a certain crudeness and indecision in the ground which he himself has occupied concerning TRADITION. If, without impertinence, we may freely express our opinion, it is this--that Mr. Isaac Taylor has been disgusted by finding the cry of the Bible only' applied to prove that all ecclesiastical history is useless; has then somehow imagined that such a view is essential to Dissenters; and has proceeded to select for himself an untenable and scarcely intelligible position between that of the Tractarians who plainly acknowledge, and that of Dissenters, who plainly deny, authority in the ancient Christian fathers as witnesses to the book of Holy Writ. In his long discussion of eighteen pages, entitled, “The Dependence of the Modern Church upon the Ancient Church,' which is meant as a polemic against Dissenters, we must think that he laboriously misses the mark. He talks much of the TESTIMONY and JUDGMENT of the early church, and declares, among other things, that the observance of the first day of the week rests on a WELL-CONFIRMED TRADITION. Yet if the matter be followed a single step farther, he will be forced to descend into the swamps of dissent. For who tells him that this is a well-confirmed tradition ? it is only his own judgment on a point of historical criticism. And what induces him to lay more stress on the testimony of Justin to the second epistle of Peter, than on the testimony of the same writer to the verses of the Sibyl and of Hystaspes ?f The case must surely be plain, that it rests with the modern critic to decide what weight is due to the testimony (improperly so called) of these ancients; and Mr. Isaac Taylor has no ground for imputing it to “the modern spirit of self-sufficiency, that we think it necessary to rejudge these judgments. Such language is a weapon which not only cuts both ways, but is far sharper in the hands of his adversaries than in his own. How fairly might they in turn declaim against the modern spirit of self-sufficiency in one who declares that venerable antiquity' is a 'gay bubble,' who thinks most meanly of the apostolic (or earliest) fathers, and who fearlessly asserts that their successors, with scarcely a single exception,
• The small capitals are his own.
† We take this as he states it, though we are not able to make out the fact, that this epistle is quoted by Clement, Hermas, Justin, Athenagoras.'
misapprehended the genius and purport of Christianity. We do not tax him with self-sufficiency in thus rejudging the ancients; but we complain that he does not wholly give to us the liberty of thought which he so amply uses himself. In short, we unwillingly confess that there breathes through all the book an atmosphere of dogmatism, which is at once inconsistent and unbecoming. However, we must avow, that in vol. i. p. 22–25, &c., he appears to have become a mere Biblican Dissenter again.
Fourthly : a reader of his book needs to pay great attention to the use which our author makes of the phrase * Ancient Christianity, as opposed to that of the ' Apostolic' times. By the term Ancient, or Nicene, he denotes the third, fourth, and fifth centuries. It is within these limits that the fathers live, on whom the new Oxford school lays all its stress. Presuming, if we rightly interpret him, that his reader will never forget of what period he is speaking, he often employs vague expressions which seem to have misled even candid opponents. We have already quoted a passage, in which he uses the phrase, the Christian teachers, from the very first,' words by which we cannot question that he meant, “from the very beginning of the period which I am discussing with my opponents,' for any other interpretation would include Paul and Timothy, Clement and Linus, under the term
Christian teachers.' Such and similar loose phrases have been (as we think) misunderstood, and severely animadverted upon, of which we will give one instance, somewhat different in kind from the former. Vol. i. p. 62: *Ilad it been possible, at any moment during the first five centuries, to have withdrawn this opinion (of the angelic excellence of virginity) from the ecclesiastical system, the entire structure of polity and worship must have crumbled to the dust.' A respectable and moderate writer, the Rev. James Beaven, who quotes this with much surprise, evidently supposes Mr. Í. Taylor to assert nothing less, than that the fabric of church worship in the first century was based on the doctrine of the merit of virginity. The extreme absurdity of it, from a writer who rejects the doctrine as unapostolic, satisfies us that his sentence is to be interpreted as follows:- Had it been possible, at any moment of the first five centuries, during which it can be proved that the Hierarchical* system existed, to withdraw this opinion, &c., that system would forthwith have crumbled to the dust. But we do feel, that in a matter so eminently cri
• In fact, the Episcopal, as opposed to Presbyterian authority, appears practically prominent for the first time in Cyprian's controversy; and Cyprian's date and locality undeniably furnish proof of both celibacy and its abuses. . As for the Episcopal pretensions advanced in Ignatius's epistles, they were at any rate words without act; nor can any just confidence be attained that they are not later interpolations, where so much is undoubtedly interpolated,