« PreviousContinue »
was this general contagion in their actions, and not in their writings: who is ignorant of the foul errors, the ridiculous wresting of Scripture, the heesies, the vanities thick sown through the volumes of Justin Martyr, Clemens, Origen, Tertullian, and others of eldest time? Who would think him fit to write an apology for Christian faith to the Roman senate, that would tell them "how of the angels," which he must needs mean those in Genesis called the sons of God, "mixing with women were begotten the devils," as good Justin Martyr in his Apology told them? But more indignation would it move to any. Christian that shall read Tertullian, terming St. Paul a novice, and raw in grace, for reproving St. Peter at Antioch, worthy to be blamed if we believe the epistle to the Galatians: perhaps from this hint the blasphemous Jesuits presumed in Italy to give their judgment of St. Paul, as of a hotheaded person, as Sandys in his relations tells us.
Now besides all this, who knows not how many superstitious works are ingraffed into the legitimate writings of the fathers? And of those books that pass for authentic, who knows what hath been tampered withal, what hath been razed out, what hath been inserted? Besides the late legerdemain of the papists, that which Sulpitius writes concerning Origen's books, gives us cause vehemently to suspect, there hath been packing of old. In the third chap. of his 1st Dialogue we may read what wrangling the bishops and monks had about the reading or not reading of Origen; some objecting that he was corrupted by heretics; others answering that all such books had been so dealt with. How then shall I trust these times to lead me, that testify so ill of leading themselves? Certainly of their defects their own witness may be best received, but of the rectitude and sincerity of their life and doctrine, to judge rightly, we must judge by that which was to be their rule.
But it will be objected, that this was an unsettled state of the church, wanting the temporal magistrate to suppress the licence of false brethern, and the extravagancy of still new opinions; a time not imitable for church government, where the temporal and spiritual power did not close in one belief, as under Constantine. I am not of opinion to think the church a vine in this respect, because, as they take it, she cannot subsist without clasping about the elm of worldly strength and felicity, as if the heavenly city could not support itself without the props and buttresses of secular authority. They extol Constantine because he extolled them; as our homebred monks in their histories blanch the kings their benefactors, and brand those that went about to be their correctors. If he had curbed the growing pride, avarice, and luxury of the clergy, then every page of his story should have swelled with his faults, and that which Zozimus the heathen. writes of him should have come in to boot: we should have heard then in every declamation how he slew his nephew Commodus, a worthy man ; his noble and eldest son Crispus, his wife Fausta, besides numbers of his friends; then his cruel exactions, his unsoundness in religion, favouring the Arians that had been condemned in a council, of which himself sat as. it were president; his hard measure and banishment of the faithful and invincible Athanasius; his living unbaptised almost to his dying day; these blurs are too apparent in his life. But since he must needs be the loadstar of reformation, as some men clatter, it will be good to see further his knowledge of religion what it was, and by that we may likewise guess at the sincerity of his times in those that were not heretical, it being likely that he would converse with the famousest prelates (for so he had made them) tha were to be found for learning.
Of his Arianism we heard, and for the rest a pretty scantling of his knowledge may be taken by his deferring to be baptized so many years, a thing not usual, and repugnant to the tenor of Scripture; Philip knowing nothing that should hinder the eunuch to be baptized after profession of his belief. Next, by the excessive devotion, that I may not say superstition, both of him and his mother Helena, to find out the cross on which Christ suffered, that had long lain under the rubbish of old ruins; (a thing which the disciples and kindred of our Saviour might with more ease have done, if they had thought it a pious duty;) some of the nails whereof he put into his helmet, to bear off blows in battle, others he fastened among the studs of his bridle, to fulfil (as he thought, or his court bishops persuaded him) the prophecy of Zechariah; "And it shall be that which is in the bridle, shall be holy to the Lord." Part of the cross, in which he thought such virtue to reside, as would prove a kind of Palladium to save the city wherever it remained, he caused to be laid up in a pillar of porphyry by his statue. How he or his teachers could trifle thus with half an eye open upon St. Paul's principles, I know not how to imagine.
How should then the dim taper of this emperor's age, that had such need of snuffing, extend any beam to our times, wherewith we might hope to be better lighted, than by those luminaries that God hath set up to shine to us far nearer hand. And what reformation he wrought for his own time, it will not be amiss to consider; he appointed certain times for fasts and feasts, built stately churches, gave large immunities to the clergy, great riches and promotions to bishops, gave and ministered occasion to bring in a deluge of ceremonies, thereby either to draw in the heathen by a resemblance of their rites, or to set a gloss upon the simplicity and plainness of Christianity; which, to the gorgeous solemnities of paganism, and the sense of the world's children, seemed but a homely and yeomanly religion; for the beauty of inward sanctity was not within their prospect.
So that in this manner the prelates, both then and ever since, coming from a mean and plebeian life on a sudden to be lords of stately palaces, rich furniture, delicious fare, and princely attendance, thought the plain and homespun verity of Christ's gospel unfit any longer to hold their lordships' acquaintance, unless the poor threadbare matron were put into better clothes; her chaste and modest vail, surrounded with celestial beams, they overlaid with wanton tresses, and in a staring tire bespeckled her with al the gaudy allurements of a whore.
Thus flourished the church with Constantine's wealth, and thereafter were the effects that followed; his son Constantius proved a flat Arian, and his nephew Julian an apostate, and there his race ended: the church that before by insensible degrees welked and impaired, now with large steps went down hill decaying: at this time Antichrist began first to put forth his horn, and that saying was common, that former times had wooden chalices and golden priests; but they, golden chalices and wooden priests. "Formerly," saith Sulpitius," martyrdom by glorious death was sought more greedily than now bishoprics by vile ambition are hunted after," speaking of these times and in another place," they gape after possessions, they tend lands and livings, they cower over their gold, they buy and sell: and if there be any that neither possess nor traffic, that which is worse, they set still, and expect gifts, and prostitute every endowment of grace, every holy thing, to sale." And in the end of his history thus he concludes. "All things went to wrack by the faction, wilfulness, and avarice of the bishops; and by this means God's people, and every good man, was had in scorn and derision;" which St. Martin found truly to be said by his friend Sulpitius; for, being
held in admiration of all men, he had only the bishops his enemies, found God less favourable to him after he was bishop than before, and for his last sixteen years would come at no bishop's meeting. Thus you see sir, what Constantine's doings in the church brought forth, either in his own or in his son's reign.
Now, lest it should be thought that something else might ail this author thus to hamper the bishops of those days, I will bring you the opinion of three the famousest men for wit and learning that Italy at this day glories of, whereby it may be concluded for a received opinion, even among men professing the Romish faith, that Constantine marred all in the church. Dante, in his 19th Canto of Inferno, hath thus, as I will render it you in English blank verse:
Ah Constantine! of how much ill was cause
So, in his 20th Canto of Paradise, he makes the like complaint, and Petrarch seconds him in the same mind in his 108th sonnet, which is wiped out by the inquisitor in some editions; speaking of the Roman Antichrist as merely bred up by Constantine.
Founded in chaste and humble poverty,
'Gainst them that rais'd thee dost thou lift thy horn,
Impudent whore, where hast thou plac'd thy hope?
Ariosto of Ferrara, after both these in time, but equal in fame, following the scope of his poem in a difficult knot how to restore Orlando his chief hero to his lost senses, brings Astolfo the English knight up into the moon, where St. John, as he feigns, met him. Cant. 34.
And to be short, at last his guide him brings
A mighty mass of things strangely confus'd,
And amongst these so abused things, listen what he met withal, under the conduct of the Evangelist.
Then past he to a flowery mountain green,
Which once smelt sweet, now stinks as odiously:
And this was a truth well known in England before this poet was born, as our Chaucer's Ploughman shall tell you by and by upon another occasion. By all these circumstances laid together, I do not see how it can be disputed what good this emperor Constantine wrought to the church, but rather whether ever any, though perhaps not wittingly, set open a door to more mischief in Christendom. There is just cause therefore, that when the prelates cry out, Let the church be reformed according to Constantine, it should sound to a judicious ear no otherwise, than if they should say, Make us rich, make us lofty, make us lawless; for if any under him were not so, thanks to those ancient remains of integrity, which were not yet quite worn out, and not to his government.
Thus finally it appears, that those purer times were not such as they are rried up, and not to be followed without suspicion, doubt, and danger. The last point wherein the antiquary is to be dealt with at his own weapon, is,
to make it manifest that the ancientest and best of the fathers have disclaimed all sufficiency in themselves that men should rely on, and sent all comers to the Scriptures, as all-sufficient: that this is true, will not be unduly gathered, by showing what esteem they had of antiquity themselves, and what validity they thought in it to prove doctrine or discipline. İ must of necessity begin from the second rank of fathers, because till then antiquity could have no plea. Cyprian in his 63d Epistle: "If any," saith he, "of our ancestors, either ignorantly or out of simplicity, hath not observed that which the Lord taught us by example," speaking of the Lord's supper, "his simplicity God may pardon of his mercy; but we cannot be excused for following him, being instructed by the Lord." And have not we the same instructions; and will not this holy man, with all the whole consistory of saints and martyrs that lived of old, rise up and stop our mouths in judgment, when we shall go about to father our errors and opinions upon their authority? In the 73d Epist. he adds, "In vain do they oppose custom to us, if they be overcome by reason; as if custom were greater than truth, or that in spiritual things that were not to be followed, which is revealed for the better by the Holy Ghost." In the 74th, "Neither ought custom to hinder that truth should not prevail; for custom without truth is but agedness of error."
Next Lactantius, he that was preferred to have the bringing up of Constantine's children, in his second book of Institutions, chap. 7 and 8, disputes against the vain trust in antiquity, as being the chiefest argument of the Heathen against the Christians: "They do not consider," saith he, "what religion is, but they are confident it is true, because the ancients delivered it; they count it a trespass to examine it." And in the eighth: "Not because they went before us in time, therefore in wisdom; which being given alike to all ages, cannot be prepossessed by the ancients wherefore, seeing that to seek the truth is inbred to all, they bereave themselves of wisdom, the gift of God, who without judgment follow the ancients, and are led by others like brute beasts." St. Austin writes to Fortunatian, that "he counts it lawful, in the books of whomsoever, to reject that which he finds otherwise than true; and so he would have others deal by He neither accounted, as it seems, those fathers that went before, nor himself, nor others of his rank, for men of more than ordinary spirit, that might equally deceive, and be deceived: and ofttimes setting our servile humours aside, yea, God so ordering we may find truth with one man, as soon as in a council, as Cyprian agrees, 71st Epist. "Many things, saith he, "are better revealed to single persons." At Nicæ, At Nicæ, in the first and best-reputed council of all the world, there had gone out a canon to divorce married priests, had not one old man, Paphnutius, stood up and reasoned against it.
Now remains it to show clearly that the fathers refer all decision of controversy to the Scriptures, as all-sufficient to direct, to resolve, and to de- v termine. Ignatius, taking his last leave of the Asian churches, as he went to martyrdom, exhorted them to adhere close to the written doctrine of the apostles, necessarily written for posterity: so far was he from unwritten traditions, as may be read in the 36th chap. of Eusebius, 3d b. In the 74th Epist. of Cyprian against Stefan, bishop of Rome, imposing upon him a tradition; "Whence," quoth he, "is this tradition? Is it fetched from the authority of Christ in the gospel, or of the apostles in their epistles? for God testifies that those things are to be done which are written." And then thus, "What obstinacy, what presumption is this, to prefer human tradition before divine ordinance?" And in the same epist. "if we shal!
return to the head, and beginning of divine tradition, (which we all know he means the Bible,) human error ceases; and the reason of heavenly mysteries unfolded, whatsoever was obscure becomes clear." And in the 14th distinct. of the same epist. directly against our modern fantasies of a still visible church, he teaches, "that succession of truth may fail; to renew which, we must have recourse to the fountains;" using this excellent similitude, "if a channel, or conduit-pipe which brought in water plentifully before, suddenly fail, do we not go to the fountain to know the cause, whether the spring affords no more, or whether the vein be stopped, or turned aside in the midcourse? Thus ought we to do, keeping God's precepts, that if in aught the truth shall be changed, we may repair to the gospel and to the apostles, that thence may arise the reason of our doings, from whence our order and beginning arose." In the 75th he inveighs bitterly against pope Stephanus, "for that he could boast his succession from Peter, and yet foist in traditions that were not apostolical." And in his book of the unity of the church, he compares those that, neglecting God's word, follow the doctrines of men, to Corah, Dathan, and Abiram. The very first page of Athanasius against the gentiles, avers the scriptures to be sufficient of themselves for the declaration of truth; and that if his friend Macarius read other religious writers, it was but pionáλos come un vertuoso, (as the Italians say,) as a lover of elegance: and in his second tome, the 39th page, after he hath reckoned up the canonical books, "in these only," saith he, "is the doctrine of godliness taught; let no man add to these, or take from these." And in his Synopsis, having again set down all the writers of the Old and New Testament, "these," saith he, "be the anchors and props of our faith." Besides these, millions of other books have been written by great and wise men according to rule, and agreement with these, of which I will not now speak, as being of infinite number, and mere dependence on the canonical books. Basil, in his 2d tome, writing of true faith, tells his auditors, he is bound to teach them that which he hath learned out of the Bible: and in the same treatise he saith, "that seeing the commandments of the Lord are faithful, and sure for ever, it is a plain falling from the faith, and a high pride, either to make void any thing therein, or to introduce any thing not there to be found:" and he gives the reason, "for Christ saith, My sheep hear my voice; they will not follow another, but fly from him, because they know not his voice." But not to be endless in quotations, it may chance to be objected, that there be many opinions in the fathers which have no ground in Scripture; so much the less, may I say, should we follow them, for their own words shall condemn them, and acquit us that lean not on them; otherwise these their words will acquit them, and condemn us. But it will be replied, the Scriptures are difficult to be understood, and therefore require the explanation of the fathers. It is true, there be some books, and especially some places in those books, that remain clouded; yet ever that which is most necessary to be known is most easy; and that which is most difficult, so far expounds itself ever, as to tell us how little it imports our saving knowledge. Hence, to infer a general obscurity over all the text, is a mere suggestion of the devil to dissuade men from reading it, and casts an aspersion of dishonour both upon the mercy, truth, and wisdom of God. We count it no gentleness or fair dealing in a man of power amongst us, to require strict and punctual obedience, and yet give out all his commands ambiguous and obscure; we should think he had a plot upon us; certainly such commands were no commands, but snares. The very essence of truth is plainness and brightness; the darkness and crookedness is our own. The wisdom