It was very common with pagan philosophers to hold that certain doctrines were needful for the masses, though not absolutely true. In such cases the absolute truth was held as an esoteric doctrine, and the other proclaimed to the people. The fathers of the Christian Church did not escape the infection of this leprosy of pious fraud. In the judgment of Neander, this was true of a father no less eminent and celebrated than the great Chrysostom.
The facts concerning this eminent man are, that he was a scholar of Diodore of Tarsus for six years, and during that time Theodore of Mopsuestia was his fellow-student. Both of these were decided advocates of universal restoration. Of course, Chrysostom must have understood their views of 1 Cor. xv. 28, the corner-stone of that system. In expounding this passage, what course does Chrysostom take? He simply says that the doctrine of universal restoration has been inferred from that passage, makes a striking statement of the result, and says nothing to refute the opinion. From this, Neander infers that he believed it, since if he had held it to be erroneous he would have contradicted it (“History of Dogmas,”) vol. ii., p. 415). Elsewhere Neander says that in his field of labor he felt that the doctrine of eternal punishment was necessary to alarm the worldly and deter them from sin, and so he preached it to the multitude (“Ch. History,” vol. ii., p. 676, Torrey’s translation).
Again, in commenting on Phil. ii. 10, 11, “ that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow,” he asks: “What does this mean of things in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth? It means the whole world, and angels, and men, and demons. Or it signifies both the holy and sinners.” He, of course, knew the use made of this text, that bowing the knee involves true worship in the good, and that it should not be taken in two senses, as it would be if it were said to mean only a forced and hypocritical pretense of worship on the part of sinners. If he thought this argument invalid, why did he give such an answer as he did, and not expose the false inference derived from it? Neander would say, as before, esoterically he believed that the inference was valid, but that the other view was needed by the masses, to deter them from sin by fear.
This distinguished father, Neander puts in the same class. He says: “Gregory Nazianzen did not venture to express his own doctrine so openly, but allows it sometimes to escape when he is speaking of eternal punishment” (“History of Christian Dogmas,” vol. ii., pp. 414, 415, London 1866). Hagenbach takes a similar view (vol. i., Section 142, note 6), but with less decision. Gregory, referring to the fire that Christ came to kindle on earth, calls it a purifying fire. But he then goes on to describe another fire as penal, as the fire of Sodom, or that prepared for the devil, or the fire that is never quenched, but is everlasting, for the punishment of wicked men, “unless in this case also we may understand the fire more moderately as purifying, which is more benevolent and humane, and more worthy of God, who punishes” (Benedictine Ed., Orat. xl., p. 721, Section 6). In this last flash of feeling, there is a revelation of his esoteric view. Yet he thought it best often to preach the other. Even Origen thought that it was sometimes best to take this course, as he expressly says.
By his acts, this great man has indicated that either he believed in universal restoration, or that he regarded it as not a dangerous error. He nominated, as I have said, Didymus the Blind, a decided follower of Origen, as president of the Catechetical School at Alexandria, where he taught for sixty years, while even men like Jerome, Rufinus, Palladius, and Isidore, sat at his feet with admiration.
Athanasius, too, was a student and admirer of the works of Origen, and defended him as orthodox, and quoted him as authority in controversies.
Basil The Great.
This eminent man was a brother of Gregory of Nyssa, and of the saintly Macrina, of whom I have spoken. They lived in love and in peace. What were Basil’s inward views of the opinions of such a brother and such a sister? Did he make any effort to turn them from dangerous error? Or, had he, too, an esoteric view, which enabled him to regard their views without distress, and even with complacency? Certainly some passages in his writings imply it. And yet, in other cases, he proclaims endless punishment, to warn and arouse delaying sinners.
It is not necessary to pursue this view further. But it is very important, as explaining the great fact to which I have already adverted, that not one of the great fathers has ever made an elaborate argument for future eternal punishment, or against universal restoration as a dangerous error. Augustine is nearest to an exception; but he is superficial and limited in his range of thought. We cannot fully understand such a proclamation of future endless punishment as has been descried, while it was not believed, until we consider the influence of Plato on the age. He not only justified, but enjoined the use of, falsehood for the masses in his “Republic.” He describes a fiction as to the origin of the different classes of the republic which is to be taught from childhood. Socrates is introduced as saying, “It is indispensable that this fiction should be circulated and accredited, as the fundamental, consecrated, unquestioned creed of the whole city, from which the feeling of harmony and brotherhood among the citizens springs” (Grote’s “Plato,” vol. iii., pp. 56, 57). Such principles, as a leprosy, had corrupted the whole community, and especially the leaders. In the Roman Empire, pagan magistrates and priests appealed to retributions in Tartarus, of which they had no belief, to affect the masses. This does not excuse, but it explains, the preaching of eternal punishment by men who did not believe it.
This want of a high sensibility to veracity injured the early church immeasurably, and all subsequent ages have suffered by it.
A vivid sensibility to truth is needed above all things in this age. The power of denominational interests or prejudices to affect the true statement of historical facts has been great. It should wholly cease, and every man should write as in the presence of god, who cannot be deceived, and who abhors all fraud and deceit.
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