A theory, a legend, and a blunder - such, as we have seen, are the pillars upon which rest the proud pretensions of the great Western Church of Christendom. And the discovery may well lead us to distrust that Church's teaching, and fearlessly to investigate the truth of every dogma for which she claims our faith.
Now if these dogmas be true, they are transcendental truths; and therefore it is idle to appeal to any human experience or authority in their support. A Divine revelation alone can justify our accepting them. Have we such a revelation? And will an appeal to it convince us of their truth? To the first of these questions Christians of every name and creed will reply in perfect Unison. But when we come to the second, our suspicions will be aroused, not only by the fact that some of these doctrines the Churches of the Reformation repudiate, but also by the reluctance of those who champion them to permit an unfettered appeal to the authority on which they are supposed to rest. The Church is to limit and control our access to the Scriptures, either directly, in virtue of its own mystical authority - one of the very points at issue - or else in - directly, by insisting that we shall interpret the Scriptures in accordance with the writings of the Fathers.
Scripture, we are told, is "reverenced as paramount." "The Old and New Testaments are the fountain, the Catholic Fathers the channel, through which it has flowed down to us. The contrast, then, in point of authority is not between Holy Scripture and the Fathers, but between the Fathers and us." They are not "equalled, much less preferred, to Holy Scripture, but only to ourselves: i.e. the ancient to the modern, the waters near the fountain to the troubled estuary rolled backward and forward by the varying tide of human opinion, and rendered brackish by the continued contact with the bitter waters of the world." '
This is the language of Dr. Pusey - a teacher than whom no one has borne bolder testimony to the supreme authority and value of Holy Scripture. In the preface to his Daniel The Prophet, he writes: "No book can be written in behalf of the Bible like the Bible itself. Man's defences are man's word; they may help to beat off attacks, they may draw out some portion of its meaning. The Bible is God's Word, and through it God the Holy Ghost, who spake it, speaks to the soul which closes not itself against it." That one who wrote such words as these should seek to identify the Bible with the writings of men, gives proof how well he knew that, apart from the writings of men, the Bible would lend no sanction to the system with which his name is associated.
And yet how plausible it is! It seems the perfection of reasonableness. The simple reader might suppose that in regard to doctrine and practice the Fathers were agreed. But the Fathers differed, and the Churches with which they were severally connected differed; and their differences led to many a division, many a feud. And so Dr. Pusey goes on to warn us that no one Father in particular is to be accepted as our guide, and we are to follow them only so far as their teaching was "universally received." "It is this only," he adds, "which according to Vincentius' invaluable rule, was received 'by all, in all Churches, and at all times,' which has the degree of evidence upon which we can undoubtedly pronounce that it is Apostolic." More plausible still! But, in fact, it is but dust flung into our eyes. If the "Catholic faith" is to be thus limited to doctrines universally accepted, we shall jettison at once not only certain Pagan superstitions which are "undoubtedly pronounced to be Apostolic;" but also some of the great fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith. And who is to decide for us what is the residuum of mingled truth and error which is to serve as a creed by which we shall mould our character and shape our course in view of the solemnities of our existence? The most honoured of the Fathers were men whose minds were impregnated by the superstitions of Pagan religion, or the subtleties of Pagan philosophy: are we to assume that nineteen centuries of the Christian religion have so enfeebled or depraved the intellect of Christendom that we are less capable of understanding the Scriptures than they were? They were "near the fountain" of Christianity, forsooth; yes, but they were nearer still to the cesspool of paganism. And inquiry will show that it is to the cesspool that we should attribute every perversion of the truth which today defaces what is called the Christian religion.
The Christian turns to the Bible to hear in it the voice of his living Saviour and Master and Lord, who, by the Holy Spirit, sent down from heaven to that very end, "speaks" in and through that Word, "to the soul which closes not itself against it." But the founder of this religious system is the dead Buddha of nineteen centuries ago, the pure waters of whose teaching are now dissipated in "the troubled estuary rolled backward and forward by the varying tide" of the opinions of the Fathers, and "rendered brackish by the continued contact with the bitter waters" of a corrupt and apostate Church.
Let those who thus appeal to the Fathers hear the Fathers. No one among them is held in higher esteem than Chrysostom. The most famous of the Greek Fathers, he has been canonised by the Roman church; and both Greek and Roman Churches celebrate his festival. And with abundant reason. For he lived a pure and floble life in an age when this much-vaunted "primitive Church" was characterised by shame-less profligacy and corruption. Here is Chrysostom's testimony to the Scriptures -
"And why does he bid all Christians at that time to betake themselves to the Scriptures? Because at that time, when heresy hath got possession of those Churches, there can be no proof of true Christianity, nor any other refuge for Christians wishing to know the true faith but the Divine Scriptures. For before it was shown in many ways which was the Church of Christ, and which heathenism; but now it is known in no way to those who wish to ascertain which is the true Church of Christ, but only through the Scriptures. Why?
Because all those things which are properly Christ's in the truth, those heresies have also in their schism: Churches alike, the Holy Scripture alike, bishops alike, and the other orders of clergy, baptism alike, the eucharist alike, and everything else; nay, even Christ Himself. Therefore, if any one wishes to ascertain which is the true Church of Christ, whence can he ascertain it, in the confusion arising from so great a similitude, but only by the Scriptures?
"Therefore the Lord, knowing that such a confusion of things would take place in the last days, commands on that account, that the Christians who are in Christianity, and desirous of availing themselves of the strength of the true faith, should betake themselves to nothing else but the Scriptures; otherwise, if they should look to other things they shall stumble and perish, not understanding which is the true Church."
These were the words of the most famous of the Greek Fathers: now let us hear the testimony of Augustine, the most famous of the Latin Fathers. He says - "I declare unto you that the Holy Scriptures which are called canonical, are the only books in the world to which I have learned to pay such honour and reverence, that I most firmly believe that none of their authors has committed any error therein. Other authors are read by me with the persuasion that however they may excel in holiness and learning, what they write is not true because they write it, but because they can prove it to be true either by Scripture or reason."
In "all things that pertain to life and godliness" the words of Holy Writ are so simple and clear that a little child can grasp their meaning. Thus the apostle could write to Timothy, "From a child thou hast known the Holy Scriptures which are able to make thee wise unto salvation." But who is to interpret the Fathers for us? Rival schools of Christian thought appeal to them in support ortheir opposing tenets; who, then, is to arbitrate between them? And by what standard? And why should we turn from what is plain and simple to writings which are maze of mingled heresy and truth? "Near the fountain!" These men talk as though the apostles left behind them a pure and united Church, and the Ante-Nicene Fathers had entered without a break upon the heritage. But what are the facts? "While the apostles wrote, the actual state of the visible tendencies of things showed too plainly what Church history would be." and the writer goes on to say - "I know not how any man, in closing the Epistles, could expect to find the subsequent history of the Church essentially different from what it is. In those writings we seem, as it were, not to witness some passing storms which clear the air, but to feel the whole atmosphere charged with the elements of future tempest and death. Every moment the forces of evil show themselves more plainly. They are encountered, but not dissipated.
"The fact which I observe is not merely that these indications of the future are in the Epistles, but that they increase as we approach the close, and after the doctrines of the gospel have been fully wrought out, and the fulness of personal salvation and the ideal character of the Church have been placed in the clearest light, the shadows gather and deepen on the external history. The last words of St. Paul in the second Epistle to Timothy, and those of St. Peter in his second Epistle, with the Epistles of St. John and St. Jude, breathe the language of a time in which. the tendencies of that history had distinctly shown themselves; and in this respect these writings form a prelude and a passage to the Apocalypse." In very truth those "last words" were wrung from men depressed by patent signs of general apostasy. The same apostle who had exulted in the fact that "all they which dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus," lived to pen the sad lament, "This thou knowest, that all they which are in 'Asia be turned away from me." And then, taking a still wider view of the condition of the Church, he indited the solemn forecast, "Evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived." And for more than a century before Ireneus - the earliest of the Patristic theologians - appeared upon the scene, the leaven had been working. That heresies should be the subject of the only treatise we possess from his pen, may indicate the state into which the Church had already passed. "Dogs," "evil workers," "the Concision," warned against even in apostolic times, increased in number and in influence, as the traditions of apostolic times lost their power in the Church. Such men were ever at work - lowering the standard of Christian life, and corrupting the purity and simplicity of the Christian faith and the Christian ordinances.
Error is a weed of rank and rapid growth. But it was not until more than a century after Ireneus had gone to his rest, when the last and fiercest of the persecutions had ended, and, with the advent of Constantine, the wolf of paganism openly assumed the sheep's clothing of the Christian religion," that the errors, which were in the very 'warp and woof of that religion, began to ripen and spread unchecked; and ere another century had passed, the standard even of outward morality in the professing Church sank to the level of that of the heathen world.'
The Church of God is "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets"; the Church of Christendom is built upon the foundation of the Laiin Fathers. What the Apostle Paul was to the one, Augustine of Hippo was to the other. Though inferior to Jerome in learning, he was practically the founder of the Latin Church. The personal greatness of the man - beyond question. His writings give proof of it. Throughout the Middle Ages their authority was supreme, and their influence is felt to the present hour. And though till recently his Confessions were known only to the theologian and the student, the book now finds a place in thousands of English homes. But, as the inspired apostle wrote, "God accepteth no man's person," so we may fearlessly bring the teaching of Augustine to the test of Scripture.
Can any spiritually intelligent Christian read the Confessions without being struck by the ignorance it betokens of Christian doctrine? It reveals the experience of a great and pure and earnest soul reaching out after God in the midst of mists and darkness which the sunlight of Christianity would have dispelled. Intense reverence for God, and desire to please Him - these are manifest in it throughout. But it all savours of what the apostle describes as the effort to be "made perfect in the flesh." Indeed it is startling to notice how little there is of Christ in it all, even in the theology of it. It is possible of course that men unknown to fame, of whom no record has come down to us, may have been spiritually in advance of their ecclesiastical superiors. What is true in our own day may have been true in the days of the Fathers. But if the Patristic literature is to be our guide, the great truth of Grace disappeared from the Church with the Apostles who were its heralds. And ignorance of grace will go far to account for the differences which marked the systems of Greek and Latin theology, and for the heresies by which the one and the other were corrupted.
Before the law of gravitation was discovered, many problems in astronomy were solved as clearly and accurately as they are today; but there was no unity in the science, and much pertaining to it was incomprehensible. And so, if Grace be unknown, various Christian doctrines may still be understood, but the central principle which binds them together is wanting, and there are elements not only of darkness, but even of seeming contradiction. The truth of Grace having been lost, the doctrine of Divine wrath, eternal and inexorable, against human sin, became overwhelming and intolerable; and the theologies of the Fathers struggled to bridge over the chasm which separated God from men. The Greek school, under the influence of the Neo-Platonism of which Alexandria was the cradle and the home, leant toward the conception of a deity "immanent" in the world, and especially in humanity. The incarnation, not the cross, was to them the climax of the Divine revelation to men. But though a climax it was not a crisis. It was rather the unfolding and display of the principle on which the Supreme had been working throughout the ages. Thus it was that God restored relations with the fallen race, alienated and lost by sin. Thus was humanity redeemed; for the true emblem of Redemption was not the Cross of Calvary, but the manger of Bethlehem. It was Paganism in a Christian dress.'
The theology or the Latin Fathers, on the other hand, was governed by the old Platonic conception of the "transcendent" Deity, a God far removed from men; whose alienation, moreover, was rendered more terrible by the doctrine of original sin. In their view the benefits of the work of Christ were limited to a privileged few, and their system aimed at extending the number of that minority, and mitigating for them the perils of their position. The simple baptism of the New Testament - a public confession of Christ by those whom the gospel had won to the ranks of His disciples - was remodelled on Pagan lines as a mystical regeneration and cleansing from sin, bringing the sinner from under the stormcloud of Divine wrath into the sphere where a mystically endowed priesthood could minister to him further grace.
For in this theology Divine sovereignty became sheer favouritism; election was degraded to mean no more than immunity from wrath; and grace, instead of being, as in the New Testament, the principle of the Divine action, and the characteristic of the Divine attitude toward mankind, was regarded rather as a sort of spiritual electricity, to be communicated to the favoured few by ordinances which owed their validity to a sacerdotal class. The Church, which in their system meant practically the clergy, was the mediator between an alienated and angry God, and men depraved and doomed. The horrors of the system became further alleviated by the figment of a purgatory, prayers and masses for the dead, the invocation of saints, and all the superstitions which, to the present day, characterise the religion of Christendom. Paganism, again, in a Christian dress.
It is not that these conflicting views were taught thus plainly by all the leaders of the rival schools of Christian thought. Far from it. But in varying degrees the writings of all are tainted by them. Clement of Alexandria, rival claimant with Ireneus to the title of father of Greek theology, and Augustine of Hippo, so specially honoured by the Latin Church, are the most pronounced exponents of them. Though the fame of Clement is eclipsed by that of his brilliant disciple and successor as head of the Alexandrian catechetical school,' he remains to the present hour the "patron saint" of "the sect of the Sadducees." It was not till two centuries after his time that the Roman Church was moulded by Augustine into the form it has ever since maintained. Of all the errors that later centuries developed in her teaching there is scarcely one that cannot be found in embryo in his writings.
"The Church to him," Dean Farrar writes, "was an external establishment, subjected to the autocracy of bishops, largely dependent on the opinion of Rome. It was a Church represented almost exclusively by a sacerdotal caste, cut off by celibacy from ordinary human interests, armed with fearful spiritual weapons, and possessing the sole right to administer a grace which came magically through none but mechanical channels. And this Church might, nay, was bound to, enforce the acceptance of its own dogmas and customs even in minute details and in outward organization. It was justified in enforcing unity by using the arm of the State to fetter free consciences by cruel persecution.
And outside this Church, with its many abuses, its few elect, its vast masses arbitrarily doomed to certain destruction, its acknowledged multitudes of ambitious, greedy, ignorant and unworthy priests - there was no salvation! Augustine substituted an organised Church and a supernatural hierarchy for an ever-present Christ. To Augustine more than to any one else is due the theory which is most prolific of the abiding curse inflicted on many generations by an arrogant and usurping priestcraft.
"The outward Church of Augustine was Judaic, not Christian. The whole Epistle to the Hebrews is a protest against it. And all that was most deplorable in this theology and ecciesiasticism became the most cherished heritage of the Church of the Middle Ages in exact proportion to its narrowest ignorance, its tyrannous ambition, its moral corruption, and its unscrupulous cruelty."'
Farrar's Lives of the Fathers, vol. ii. 603.