PROF. LEWIS – THE CREEDS – THE FATHERS
We have seen that Prof. Tayler Lewis has come to the conclusion that, in the sentence of our Saviour on the judgment-day, the word aionios means pertaining to the world to come, and not eternal and everlasting, as it is translated. We have seen that he claims the Peshito as on his side. We have seen that this effects a change of position in the whole subject, allowing us to raise the question: “What is the life, and what the punishment, of the world to come? Is it ultimate annihilation after just punishment, or final restoration after severe remedial punishment, or endless suffering?”
We have said that the proper course in this case is not to be excited or react against him, but to compare his results with the language of the early creeds and of the fathers, and to see if there is such an agreement as to produce a sense of verisimilitude.
Importance and Authority of Ancient Creeds.
There is a special reason for looking to the ancient creeds for light on this question. They do not go into metaphysical systems as do some of the later creeds, but confine themselves to the great facts that cluster around the incarnation of Christ, his life, sufferings, death, and resurrection, and coming to judge the world. They include also our resurrection, judgment, and awards. The public creeds generally mention the awards of life, and say nothing of punishment. Some early creeds, drawn up by individuals, mention both. Two of the earliest creeds use the very words of Christ, aionian life; other creeds throw light on their sense, especially on the sense of the word aionios. This kind of evidence is as direct and authoritative as is possible. It is the testimony of the early Church, speaking in her creeds.
Principles of Reasoning.
If we state a self-evident principle, it may prepare the way. If, then, aionian life was introduced into the earliest creeds, and if aionios was held to mean everlasting or eternal, and if the idea was felt to be of fundamental importance, it is highly improbable, not to say impossible, that in subsequent creeds it should be dropped, and in place of it the idea “pertaining to the world to come” should be introduced. If the creeds began with the idea everlasting, it could not have been universally dropped, and another idea taken in its place, without protest and without controversy.
Now, what are the facts? They are these: The earlier creeds introduce “aionios” to qualify life. The later creeds drop it, and in place of it introduce the idea “of the world to come,” as a perfect equivalent to aionios. Thus the early creeds say, “I believe in the aionian life;” the later creeds say as a perfect equivalent, “I believe in the life of the world to come;” and this change was made without controversy or protest.
The earliest creed is that which is called the Apostles’ Creed. It is used in the Episcopal Prayer-Book, and is recognized by all denominations. The closing article of this creed is, “I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the aionian life” (aionios). The creed of the church of Jerusalem, also, which was a very early creed, closes in the same way.
Here, now, we have the very words used by Christ, zoe aionios, introduced as an article of faith in two of the earliest creeds. If, now aionios means “eternal” here, how can it in subsequent creeds assume the form “of the world to come?” But where does it assume that form? We reply, at the close of the completed Nicene Creed.
The Nicene Creed is the first great ecumenical creed established by a council of the early church. In it the doctrine of the supreme divinity of Christ was promulgated, and the foundation laid of the church doctrine of the Trinity, in the year 325. Afterwards, at Constantinople, in the year 381, this creed was confirmed and completed by the more full development of the doctrine concerning the divinity of the Holy Spirit, thus fully developing the doctrine of the Trinity. This is the creed which the American Episcopal Church has introduced into its Prayer-Book in the place of the Athanasian Creed which was omitted. It is, therefore, a very prominent and important creed. It is in this that the expression “life of the world to come” is used as an equivalent to the aionian life. The last article of this creed is, “I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” The connection of the resurrection and the awards of the judgment is so intimate that we cannot avoid the conclusion that these words refer to the life spoken of by the judge on that day. It is called the life of the world to come, as one of the great results of the judgment which must be well known to all. Now, if this is the true meaning of zoe aionios, in the great award, it is easy to account for this usage in the Nicene Creed. It simply presents in another form the true meaning of the award of Christ to the righteous on the great day of retribution. This is worthy of such a place of honor in the creed. If, now, the word aionios was universally understood to mean everlasting, it is utterly improbable that that idea would be dropped in any creed and a different one taken in its place. But, if zoe aionios was universally understood to mean the life of the world to come, then the Nicene Creed did not drop the idea, but, as we have said, simply used another mode of expressing it, which was a little more stately and impressive.
That this was the prevailing, or rather universal sense attached to this last article of the early creeds, is obvious, from the fact that it is introduced in the same place in other creeds besides the Nicene. In the apostolic constitutions a creed is given to be used in the reception of members to the church. It has, of course, no apostolic authority, but it fairly represents the general and early usage in the church. At the close of this creed all the church are represented as believing in the resurrection and the life of the world to come. This shows clearly how general and how familiar this mode of expression was, and that it was the true idea of the Church in all her creeds.
The same thing is clearly shown in the creed presented by Arius to Constantine, in proof of his orthodoxy. In this, his aim, of course, must have been to come as near to the universally recognized orthodox expressions as possible. Accordingly, he professes his belief in the resurrection and the life of the world to come.
Harmony of Confessions.
It must not be forgotten that alongside of all these later creeds the Apostles’ Creed was everywhere used, professing faith in the resurrection and in the aionian life. If it had not been felt that the sense was exactly the same, plainly the concord of confessions would have been felt to be interrupted, and the question must have arisen, Which is the true idea? But no such question arose; no disagreement of sense was perceived. Whichever creed was cited, all seemed to feel that they professed one and the same thing. This coincidence of idea between the ancient creeds and the Syriac version, which, as has been stated, always speaks of the life of the world to come, as denoted by aionios zoe, seems to be decisive of the generally-accepted meaning of what is translated, life everlasting, in the Apostles’ Creed. It should, therefore, be translated life of the world to come, in the Apostles’ Creed, even in the Prayer-Book, so as to agree with the other creeds as a profession of faith in the life of the world to come, because this is the true sense.
So much for public creeds. Let us now consider certain creeds drawn up by individuals whose sentiments are well-known.
Of these, we shall refer to two, one by Irenaeus, and the other by Origen. I refer to these creeds for this reason, that they throw light on their understanding of the word aionios, translated eternal. It will be conceded that, if a writer openly declares the punishment of the wicked to be eternal suffering, he will not immediately proceed to represent them as finally annihilated, or as ultimately restored to holiness, for this would involve a contradiction too gross to escape his notice.
Creed of Irenaeus.
But it is true that Irenaeus, in a creed drawn up by him, and designed to give a summary of the great facts in which the whole Church is agreed, does, in fact, use the word aionios to describe the punishment of the wicked. Now, if he understood this as meaning simply the punishment of the world to come, he would feel at perfect liberty to proceed and set forth the suffering and the final annihilation of the wicked, for this would but define the nature of the punishment of the world to come.
What, then, are the facts as to Irenaeus? Since he has been canonized as a saint, and since he stood in such close connection with Polycarp and with John the apostle, there has been a very great reluctance to admit the real facts of the case. Massuetus has employed much sophistry in endeavoring to hide them. Nevertheless, as we shall clearly show hereafter, they are incontrovertibly these: that he taught a final restitution of all things to unity and order by the annihilation of all the finally impenitent. Express statements of his in his creed, and in a fragment referred to by Prof. Schaff, on universal restoration (“History,” vol. i., p. 490), and in other parts of his great work against the Gnostics, prove this beyond all possibility of refutation. The inference from this is plain. He did not understand aionios in the sense eternal, but in the sense claimed by Prof. Lewis; that is, pertaining to the world to come. He held that wicked men and devils would be consigned to the punishment of the world to come, and that this, at a time to be decided by the wisdom and justice of God, would result in their annihilation, and thus in cleansing the universe from every form of sin.
Creed of Origen.
The case of Origen is no less striking and conclusive. As an introduction to his system of theology, he states certain great facts as a creed believed by all the Church. In these he states the doctrine of future retribution as aionian life and aionian punishment, using the words of Christ. Now, if Origen understood aionios in the sense pertaining to the world to come, there would be nothing to prevent him from regarding aionian punishment as a remedial punishment destined to result in the ultimate restoration of all to holiness. On the other hand, if he understood aionios as meaning strictly eternal, then to pursue such a course would involve him in gross and palpable self-contradiction. But no one can hide the facts of the case. After setting forth the creed of the Church as already stated, including aionian punishment, he forthwith proceeds, with elaborate reasoning, again and again to prove the doctrine of universal restoration.
The conclusion from these facts is obvious. Origen did not understand aionios as meaning eternal, but rather as meaning pertaining to the world to come.
Case of the Emperor Justinian.
Other cases of a like kind could be adduced, but these are sufficient, at least for the present. Yet there is one case so striking that it deserves special mention, though it involves an anticipation of some facts of history in order to understand its full force.
Some centuries, then, after the death of Origen, that great theologian in his own esteem, the Emperor Justinian, directed Mennas, the Patriarch of Constantinople, to call a local council in the year 544 to condemn errors of Origen. Among these errors was the doctrine of universal restoration. Justinian, in his letter to Mennas, presents an elaborate argument against that doctrine among others, and concludes it with a careful statement of the true faith. Here, now, was a call for an unambiguous word to denote eternal, as applied to life and punishment. The emperor, writing in Greek, had his choice of words. What word, then, from the full vocabulary of Greece, did he select? Did he rely on the word aionios as, of itself, sufficient for his purpose? Not at all. As if aware that it could denote simply “pertaining to the world to come,” he prefixes to it a word properly denoting eternal, so that his language is this, “The Holy Church of Christ teaches an endless aionian life to the righteous and endless punishment to the wicked.” Here the word used to denote endless in both cases is ateleutetos. In the case of punishment he omits aionios entirely. To denote the endless life of the righteous he uses the same unambiguous word ateleutetos, but prefixes it to aionios. But when he thus said the Church teaches an endless aionian life to the righteous, did he mean so flat a tautology as an endless endless life? Or did he prefix to the life of the world to come, as used in the creeds, a word that truly denotes eternal?
It deserves, also, particular notice, that, in a deliberate and formal effort to characterize the punishment of the wicked as strictly eternal, he does not rely on or use the word aionios at all, but employs an entirely different word, ateleutetos.
There was good reason for the distrust of Justinian of the power of the word aionios to express endless life and endless punishment. One of his contemporaries, the philosopher Olympiodorus, had pointedly used the word as directly opposed to endless punishment, and denoting a limited period. Speaking of the punishments of Tartarus, he says, Do not suppose that the soul is punished for endless aions [Greek letters here] in Tartarus. Very properly, the soul is not punished to gratify the revenge of the divinity, but for the sake of healing. But we say that the soul is punished for an aionion period [Greek letters here], calling its life, and its allotted period of punishment, its aion.” Of the very worst, he says that they need a second life, and a second period of punishment, to be made perfectly pure, and that Plato called this double period their aion. With this distinct denial of endless punishment before his eyes, and a recognition in its place of aionian punishment as the direct antithesis to it, how could Justinian express endless punishment except by another word denoting endlessness?
This usage of Olympiodorus coincides in principle with that of Dr. Tayler Lewis. Aionian punishment is for an age, or aion. Besides, the view of Prof. Lewis is in striking accordance with the usages of ancient creeds and ancient fathers, and has a verisimilitude so remarkable as to satisfy even a skeptical mind. It is a new instance of that linguistic sagacity for which he is so highly distinguished.
Our purpose can now be seen. We have aimed to open the way for a true understanding of the opinions of the fathers as to the meaning of the words of Christ at the judgment, and to show that they did not feel themselves bound by them to the belief of the eternity of future punishments.
That purpose we have effected by evidence of the highest kind, amounting to philogical demonstration.
It does not prove that they are not eternal. There may be evidence from other sources that they are so. But, by the words of Christ in the judgment, the early fathers did not feel themselves bound to any particular view, and, accordingly, thought and reasoned freely on the whole subject.
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