We come now to the Christian ages. Of these, the nineteenth is fast drawing to a close.
Christ came at the fullness of the times, and laid hold of the destinies of the world, but not in the manner anticipated. Not by armies, and conquest, and a universal worldly empire, but by principles, thoughts, enlarged views of God, man, and the universe, deep and intense emotions, and tireless mental activity. He came to save man from sin, and to renovate society. His own profound words express the character of his coming more perfectly than any other; it was to be as a vital leaven, inserted in human society and destined not to cease its action till the whole system, in all departments, was leavened. The dispensation was to be closed by his second coming and a final judgment.
Hence, these ages are full of thought, of controversies, of conflicts and of revolutions. They are also full of historical documents, in the various languages of men, calling for intense study thoroughly to understand them.
The history of these ages is a vast and sublime ocean on which we are to launch. Nor is it without its dangers. In it are gulf streams and fogs, rocks and shoals, gales and icebergs. Yet, in one part, at least, it has a fascinating aspect to all, for in it are the beginnings of that vast revolution which is yet shaking the world, and which is destined not to cease till every form of evil is overthrown.
As there is to travelers a fascination in Palestine, Sinai, and Egypt, because in them associations of Moses and of Christ meet them on every side, so the first century till its close, from its constant contact with Christ and his apostles, is full of powerful attractions.
Hence, too, the deep interest in those who are supposed to be apostolic fathers, that is, those who were associated with the apostles or with their immediate disciples.
Thus, when Irenaeus, that great defender of the faith against the Gnostics, says of Polycarp, that he was “instructed by apostles, and had intercourse with many who had seen Christ;” when he further tells how he saw Polycarp when a boy, and adds: “I can tell even the spot in which the blessed Polycarp sat and conversed, and his outgoings and incomings, and the character of his life, and the form of his body, and the conversations which he held with the multitude, and how he related his familiar intercourse with John and the rest who had seen the Lord, and how he rehearsed their sayings, and what things they were which he had heard from them with regard to the Lord and his miracles and teaching,” certainly it invests this venerable apostolic father with a deep and peculiar interest. And when Irenaeus proceeds to say, “All these things Polycarp related in harmony with the Scriptures (the gospels), as having received them from the eye-witnesses of the word of life,” our faith in the historical verity of the gospels in opposition to all mythical theories is gratefully confirmed.
We need not wonder, therefore, if all parties seek to gain a foothold in this region. This foothold is secured only by means of a statement of their case in history.
It was said of Daniel Webster that his great power with a jury lay in the statement of the facts of his case. His argument was virtually complete and he had carried the jury before they supposed that he had begun to reason at all.
In the same way histories have been written in behalf of the papacy, and, when the desired original documents were not found, they were manufactured, and for ages accepted as genuine.
Hence, in the Reformation, a fundamental work was needed, in exposing false documents, and writing the true history of the early ages, and in this work the Magdeburg Centuriators labored with terrific effect. Of course, the papacy was not silent. Baronius was their advocate, and a cardinalship was his reward. He was a man of vast learning and resources, and as honest as his cause would allow him to be, which is not saying much, for, even to-day [sic], Dollinger, the learned leader of the Old Catholics, has warned the nations of a universal Jesuit conspiracy to falsify and corrupt history in support of the claims of the papacy.
Hence, almost the whole territory is contested ground. There are hundreds of millions in the Romish and Greek Churches whom modern historical science and criticism have not reached, and who are sensitive to an attack upon even the grossest forms of error and imposition. The subject of our history is no exception to this general course of remark. Every part of it is contested ground.
History has been written as to the doctrine of retribution with reference to at least four ends.
The first is to depreciate the early fathers as holding almost universally to a system of eternal torments by material fire, thus subjecting the world to a system of degrading terrorism.
The second is to establish as true the current orthodox view of eternal punishment.
The third is to sustain the doctrine of the annihilation of the wicked after a just degree of suffering.
The fourth is to vindicate the doctrine of universal restoration and salvation as having its roots in the early ages.
It will prepare the way for our future investigations if we illustrate, by examples, some of these statements.
W. E. H. Lecky.
W. E. H. Lecky is a scholar of extensive reading and original research. His “History of European Morals, from Augustus to Charlemagne,” is a work of great value, and his account of the philosophic systems of the Roman Empire indicates a careful study of the original sources of evidence. But when, in his “History of Rationalism” (vol. I, page 316), he speaks of the fathers, he obviously has not studied the original sources, and refers to second-hand authorities of no weight at this day, in the historical world. Thus only can we explain the fact that such a man has committed himself to the statement that follows: “Origen, and his disciple Gregory of Nysssa, in a somewhat hesitating manner, diverged from the prevailing opinion (eternal torments), and strongly inclined to a figurative interpretation, and to the belief in the ultimate salvation of all. But they were alone in their opinion. With these two exceptions, all the fathers proclaimed the eternity of torments, and all defined these torments as the action of a literal fire on a sensitive body.” The general accuracy of Mr. Lecky, in his historical statements, need not be called in question. But nothing can be more erroneous than this statement. It would require more time than we can here spare to mention and characterize all those among the father who did not hold to the doctrine of eternal torments at all, in addition to the two mentioned by Mr. Lecky. But all that is necessary will be said in the course of this history.
We will next consider the statement of a defender of the current orthodoxy. This we will take from a work of decided ability and merit, a “History of Christian Doctrine,” by Prof. Shedd, of the Union Theological Seminary. In vol. ii., p. 414, he says, “The punishment inflicted upon the lost was regarded by the fathers of the ancient Church, with very few exceptions, as endless.” He then makes quotations to that effect from four fathers of the Western Church, to whom he adds Justin Martyr and Chrysostom. He then says, “The only exception to the belief in the eternity of future punishment in the ancient Church appears in the Alexandrian school.” He then shows how this denial grew out of their anthropology, and adds in conclusion” “The views of Origen concerning future retribution were almost wholly confined to his school. Faint traces of a belief in the remission of punishments in the future world are visible in the writings of Didymus of Alexandria, and in Gregory of Nyssa. The annihilation of the wicked was taught by Arnobius. With these exceptions the ancient Church held that the everlasting destiny of the human soul is decided in this earthy state.”
The argument of this passage is plain. It is this: If this is a true statement of facts, then the case of the current orthodoxy is very strong, and little more need be done. The Church has settled the question. But we ask, Is it true?
This statement somewhat transcends the limits set by Lecky to the doctrine of restoration. It is not confined to two individuals, but it is confined to one school, the school of Alexandria. What, then, shall be said of Didore of Tarsus, not of the school of Alexandria, the eminent teacher of Chrysostom, and a decided advocate of universal restoration? What shall be said of his disciple, Theodore of Mopsuestia, that earnest defender of the same doctrine, of whom Dorner says that he was “the climax and the crown of the school of Antioch?” What shall be said of the great Eastern school of Edessa and Nisibis in which the scriptural exposition of Theodore of Mopsuestia was a supreme authority and text-book? Was Theodore of the school of Alexandria? Not at all. He was of the school of Antioch. He was an opposer of Origen in interpretation, and psychology, and anthropology. And yet he not only taught the doctrine of universal restoration on his own basis, but even introduced it into the liturgy of the Nestorian Church in Eastern Asia. What, too, shall we say of the two great theological schools in which he had a place of such honor and influence? But of this we shall speak more fully at another time, when we consider the relation of the early theological schools to this question. Dr. Shedd should have called to mind a statement in Guericke’s “Church History,” as translated by himself: “It is noticeable that the exegetico-grammatical school of Antioch, as well as the allegorizing Alexandrian, adopted and maintained the doctrine of restoration” (p. 349, note 1).
Messrs. Constable and Hudson.
But there is another statement of the case by Messrs. Constable, of Ireland, and Hudson of this country, in their elaborate works designed to prove the final annihilation of the wicked. According to Mr. Constable, all the apostolic fathers believed in this doctrine. His list of authorities is quite impressive. Beginning with Barnabus, and going to the year 242, he claims Clemens Romanus, Hermas, Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Theophilus of Antioch, Irenaeus, and Clement of Alexandria, so that Arnobius does not stand alone as Prof. Shedd represents, but has very illustrious company. He leaves only Athenagoras, Tatian, and Tertullian, as advocates of eternal torment, and finally he represents Origen, so late as the year 253, as first introducing the doctrine of universal restoration. Mr. Hudson is not less exacting in his claims. He says: “It now remains to show that the early Christians, heralds as they were of the word of life, taught nothing else than the death of the wicked. The documents which here offer themselves are the writings of the so-called apostolic fathers, and other early records” (“Doctrine of a Future Life,” p. 289).
Of these claims it is enough to say that some of these witnesses do undeniably testify as alleged, but that a large number do not definitely testify to any view except the general one of future retribution, because the subject had never been up as a controverted question, and the end at which they were aiming did not call for it.
Dr. Ballou also has written a “History of Ancient Universalism,” in which is presented a very different state of facts that [sic] alleged by Mr. Lecky and Prof. Shedd. He claims, and truly, a much wider range, and far greater power for the doctrine of universal salvation, than they admit. The work is one of decided ability, and is written with great candor and a careful examination of authorities. In our opinion, it would benefit Mr. Lecky and Prof. Shedd attentively to consider all the facts and authorities presented in it. We think, however, that he, and especially his editors, in a number of cases, draw conclusions that go beyond the authorities to which they refer. The view given of the theology of Theodore of Mopsuestia, and of the difference between him and Origen, is also incomplete, and needs to be more fully wrought out.
Plan of the History.
That, then, do we propose to do in a field of history, every part of which has been, and is, so sternly contested?
We do not propose to go over all the ground in minute detail, fighting our way as we go. We propose rather, first of all, to begin with the account of the last judgment given by Christ, and the views taken of it in the early church, and to give a history of the interpretation of the leading word in that passage, the word aionios, translated first everlasting, and afterward eternal. In a true view of the historical sense of this word is the only key to much of the writing of the fathers, which would be contradictory without it. We propose next to develop certain great and undeniable historical facts as to the first system of Christian theology that was ever published, and which promulgated universal restoration, of which the illustrious Origen, in or about the year 230, was the author. We propose also to consider the foundation and growth of the first Christian theological schools and their relations to this doctrine. Thus will be developed certain great facts concerning which there can be no controversy, and these will furnish us with a point of vision from which we can survey the whole field, backward toward Christ, and onward to the action of Justinian, through a local council, in condemning the doctrine of universal restoration, so late as the year 644, more than three centuries after it was promulgated by Origen. After this year, there is no special difficulty in the history of the doctrine.
FORWARD>> (Next Chapter: CHRIST AND THE JUDGMENT)