CHAPTER 37

A LESSON OF THIS HISTORY

 

Having spoken of what may be some of the results of this history, I propose now in few words to consider one of the great lessons which are taught by it. I do not call in question the ability of my readers to interpret those lessons for themselves, yet I will not for that reason withhold by own interpretation of one of them.

Intellectual and Moral Liberty.

The great lesson is, that we ought to restore that intellectual and moral liberty that for a long time existed in the early Church on this subject, and which was destroyed mainly by Epiphanius, through his assault on Origen. I need not repeat what I have said on this liberty. It is enough to refer my readers to Chapter 20 of this history. After they have reconsidered that, I will proceed to show how that liberty was destroyed, and how it should be restored. That it was destroyed by Epiphanius and others, is conceded by the most eminent Church historians. Epiphanius had a monastic education, and relied on monastic followers as his troops. Hear now what Gieseler says: “In proportion as monachism gained strength, the prejudice strengthened against all use of human science or learning. There arose a crowd of traditional theologians, who, rejecting all free investigation, would hear of no opinion which could not be found in the writings of the fathers. This character we see exemplified in Epiphanius, Bishop of Constantia, in Cyprus, from the year 367 to 403. Even in his “Panarion” (haer. 63 and 64) he betrays his bitter hatred of Origen; and, as soon as the Arian controversy was at an end, he appeared as his open assailant. While this new contest stopped the advance of theological science in the East the Western world was bound in spiritual bondage by Augustine, and thus all free inquiry banished from the Church.”

Of Epiphanius Dr. Schaff says: “He achieved his great fame mainly by his learned and intolerant zeal for orthodoxy. . . . He was a man of earnest monastic piety, and of sincere but illiberal zeal for orthodoxy. His good-nature easily allowed him to be used as an instrument for the passions of others, and his zeal was not according to knowledge. He is the patriarch of heresy-hunters. He identified Christianity with monastic piety, and ecclesiastical orthodoxy, and considered it the great mission of his life to pursue the thousand-headed hydra of heresy into all its hiding-places.” (vol. ii., pp. 926, 927). He also, in speaking of the assaults on Origen which Epiphanius introduced, says that they show “the progress of orthodoxy under the twofold aspect of earnest zeal for the pure faith, and a narrow-minded intolerance toward all free speculation. The condemnation of Origen was a death-blow to theological science in the Greek Church, and left it to stiffen gradually into a mechanical traditionalism and formalism.”

But it may be said: “What is all this to us? We are free men. We have never been in bondage to any man.” To this I reply, This is more true than it was. But very extensively it is not true. For an evil spirit was developed at that time in putting down Origen which has ever since poisoned the Church of all denominations. It has been as a leprosy in all Christendom. Nor is this all: measures were then resorted to for the suppression of error which exerted a deadly hostility against all free investigation, from the influence of which the Church universal has not yet recovered.

The Evil Spirit.

The spirit that I refer to was a spirit of alarmism, and outcry, which appealed to the prejudices of the laity and clergy, and of the ignorant monks in the name of God and of Christianity, as if the interests of humanity were in danger of being shipwrecked, unless there was a universal rally and combination to put down some dangerous heretic. No state of mind can be more hostile to calm, free, loving inquiry than this.

Yet this state of feeling was introduced by Epiphanius against Origen, and after him was augmented from year to year, until the great Origen was not only condemned as a heretic, but it was made a point of orthodoxy by many, to believe that he was in hell, to experience forever the eternal torments which he had impiously denied.

Still it may be said: “What is this to us? No such things are done in this age and country.”

I grant that the action of this spirit is not as violent and shameful as it was. But it is not yet purged out of the constitution of Christendom at large, nor even out of Protestant bodies in this country that talk of freedom. I have been knowing [sic] to a similar combination against one of the most eminent and godly divines of this country, Dr. N. W. Taylor, where the same kind of alarmism and outcry was used. I have known another eminent divine requested to join this combination, and to denounce Dr. Taylor, with the promise that, if he would, the attack on his own orthodoxy should cease. And, when he nobly refused, I have known the vials of ecclesiastical wrath poured out on his head. Ridicule, misrepresentation, odium, and alarmism, were used against him, till, loaded with other cares, he almost sank beneath the burden. I was with him in his hours of trial, and did all in my power to aid, and cheer, and sustain him. I do not speak of a case which I do not fully understand, for, as a son, I was in full sympathy with him as my father, in all his trials.

Yet the men who did these things were, I believe, on the whole, real Christians, just as Epiphanius was. But obviously they had not recovered from that malignant disease which he introduced into the Church, and which has infected it in every subsequent age to this day.

In consequence of this treatment of Origen, who was one of the greatest men of any age, an unreasoning and violent prejudice has been connected with his doctrine of universal restoration, that makes those who are sensitive to their character for orthodoxy shrink from reading him, as from an infectious heretic, and neglect to study the history that is necessary to a true understanding of the man and of his system. We can all recall the day when the writings of the abolitionists, although written with candor, and clear and strong argument, and in a good spirit, were regarded as so odious that leading men were ashamed to be seen to read them, and, to use a familiar but expressive phrase, would not touch them even with a pair of tongs.

The same kind of feeling has been felt toward the writings of these ancient universalists. The Roman imperial Church has anathematized them, and covered them with odium. The original slanders have flowed down through the ages, and men have feared to know the truth concerning them, if it was in their favor, as if it involved moral infection.

And even for what I have said in this history, although my simple aim has been to tell the truth, before God, as to these universalist Christians of the early ages, I have been publicly reproved by an old friend of mine, and a good Christian man, as if I had been unfaithful to orthodoxy. I am free to say, however, that these ancient and excellent Christians have been slandered and slurred, and obscured too long, and that, before god, I have had a zeal to vindicate them, and to set forth the truth concerning them.

And, further, I do not hesitate to say that the spirit that has slandered and depressed these men ought to be purged out of Christendom as it has not yet been, for it is a malignant and infectious disease, hostile to the best interests of humanity. I do not say that we ought to adopt their views. But I do say that all odium, and excitement, and alarmism, and misrepresentation, are hostile to the true liberty and intellectual progress of the Church. God is love, and to see all truth we must dwell in love. Much has been done to purge the moral atmosphere of Christendom by such loving writers as Neander, who endeavors to take the best view of every man, and to place his sentiments in the fairest light. We owe much to Germany for similar vindications of intellectual and moral liberty. And I do not deem it uncalled for to say that our Dr. Schaff, in his historical works, has honorably cooperated with Neander in the same great cause of intelligent Christian liberty. There are very many men among us of an enlarged, loving, and free spirit. But all of the evil and malignant spirit has not yet been purged out, so that all can freely walk in the light of God, and in the atmosphere of divine love. 

The leaders of the Church, among whom I include the editors of religious newspapers, profess to believe that there is an assembly of holy saints and angels before the throne of an omniscient God, whom no false statement can deceive, and who abhors every unholy feeling. And yet how often do they write and speak as if afar off from that heavenly sphere, and under the influence of some earthly circle, some denomination or some party, or some body of patrons! They do not seem to realize that the great defense of truth is the presence of God, and that, to secure that presence, the indispensable requisite is that holiness which makes every man a temple of the Holy Ghost. When this is the case, and God is fully revealed, all error will be consumed by the truth of his mouth, and destroyed by the brightness of his coming.

Pernicious Measures.

Besides this evil spirit, I have spoken of pernicious measures resorted to in the case of Origen. It was the resort to the votes of a majority in a synod or council, without thorough investigation and argument. Epiphanius attacked Origen in Jerusalem, after he was dead, and tried to make the Bishop John denounce him. Failing here, he tried to compel Jerome, through fear for his reputation for orthodoxy, to do the same, and succeeded so far as to disgrace Jerome forever for his meanness, and cowardice, and double-dealing. Then Theophilus, Bishop of Alexandria, came to his aid in anathematizing Origen. He called a synod in 399, in which he condemned Origen and anathematized all who should read his works. After this, Epiphanius died. But his followers pursued the same work in his spirit, till Origen was condemned again by Justinian, through a local council at Constantinople, as has been related. After this, in many general councils he was anathematized by name among other heretics. During all this persecution, Origen made no reply, for he was dead. Nor was any competent man requested to defend him. The previous defense of him by Eusebius and Pamphilus shows to what an extent he had been slandered in their times. And yet the votes of synods and councils, thus manipulated, have expelled him from the Church, brought coarse accusations against him, and covered him with odium. Are such proceedings the voice of God through the Church? When to this mode of settling questions by the votes of councils was added imperial dictation, it made the Church in the Roman Empire a great electioneering campground, in which to get votes in a general council, and to gain imperial favor, and so to secure a majority.

Of these councils Milman has truly said: “Nowhere is Christianity less attractive, and, if we look to the ordinary tone and character of the proceedings, less authoritative, than in the councils of the Church. It is, in general, a fierce collision of two rival factions, neither of which will yield, each of which is solemnly pledged against conviction. Intrigue, injustice, violence, decisions on authority alone, and that the authority of a turbulent majority, decisions by wild acclamation, rather than after sober inquiry, detract from the reverence and impugn the judgments, at least, of the later councils. The close is almost invariably a terrible anathema, in which it is impossible not to discern the tones of human hatred, of arrogant triumph, of rejoicing at the damnation imprecated against the humiliated adversary” (“Latin Christianity,” i., 227).

To add to the evils of this unchristian mode of arriving at the truth, the decisions of such councils were sustained by civil pains and penalties. Bishops who refused to obey were banished.

In the days of Origen, there were the elements of a profound and radical discussion of all the great problems of eschatology. All the leading solutions of the great questions involved had been produced. Why was there not such a discussion? The reasons are moral. The tone of piety had deteriorated. Intellectual propositions took the place of a holy life, and a highly-developed Christian spirit. If the intellectual problems were settled rightly, it was done in the spirit of the devil, and not of God.

But, it may be said, “What is all this to us, and to the question of retribution?” I answer, Much. In the first place, this state of things unfitted the leaders from understanding God as a suffering God, a long-suffering God, and made them capable of conceiving of a vengeful God, supremely absorbed in himself, and capable of malignant retribution; and this has been transmitted to us, and has not been universally renounced.

Again, it made them capable of ascribing to God such wrongful acts toward men, that they turn eternal punishment into a system of atrocious injustice, which makes God as much worse than the devil as he is greater and more widely influential in the universe. I refer to the various theories in which uncounted millions of the human race, by an act which they never committed, are said to be disabled, and made opposite to all good, and unable to do good, and then punished forever because they did not do good.

There is a supposition on which the doctrine of eternal punishment may be true, without wronging man, or introducing any new sinners into the universe. I have endeavored to show what it is in “The Conflict of Ages.” But the solution has not been accepted. I showed by historical induction that every form of the doctrine of the fall in Adam, from the Augustinian to the Princetonian, warred with justice, honor, and love in God. Dr. Baird then came out and renounced the Princeton theory, of representative sinning by Adam, and adopted the Augustinian view of sinning in him. Dr. Hodge annihilated him, and he in return annihilated Dr. Hodge. Dr. Schaff, in his commentary on the Romans, as I have said, comes to the conclusion that no satisfactory explanation of the contradictions of justice has been given, and that we must wait for God to raise up some new Augustine to explain it. Meantime, the doctrine of eternal punishment is made to carry all this weight. And, even admitting that the doctrine of eternal punishment is the word of God, it seems to be forgotten that allegations may be attached to it that shall make it to be not the word of God, but the greatest falsehood in the universe.

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