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proceed to observe, that still there is consolation as well as duty in walking in the steps of the pious, who have agreed in the doctrines of the gospel.
All this I most freely and fully admit. I will only add, that the fact of Christians having been agreed in a doctrine, is not sufficient of itself to make the reception of it consolatory. It must prove, on examination, to be really a doctrine of the gospel, in order to afford the consolation which we may receive from union of sentiment; for as you say, however extensively and unanimously those who bore the Christian name have received error, it is no reason for our admitting it.
So far then as the simple investigation of the truth is concerned, in respect to any point in theology, the authority of great names is not to be regarded as obligatory. And in respect to the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son of God, it will not prove the correctness or incorrectness of it, to show that the early Christian fathers admitted or rejected it. In discussion purely theological, therefore, any appeal to the fathers might well be spared.
My reasons for a historical investigation, at present, of what the early fathers did really believe and teach in regard to the point in question, may be briefly stated. You have appealed to them, with full persuasion that their sentiments harmonized with yours. Others have often done the same; and specially since the publication of Bishop Bull's learned work, entitled Defensio Fidei Nicaenae. I am prepared to admit, that if it could be shewn that the early fathers, as you have said, p. 91, “ constantly declared that the doctrine of eternal generation was to be believed,” it would be an additional confirmation of the doctrine ; because it would serve to
evince, that the arguments by which it is supported were so plain and cogent, that a general assent had been compelled to them, in very ancient times. But since my persuasion is, that the doctrine cannot be established either by the Scriptures, or by principles of reasoning deduced from the essential predicates of the Deity; with my present views I should decline to follow the opinion of the fathers, provided it is in unison with yours. Still, I feel it to be a very interesting topic of examination. It is more specially so, because, although as Protestants we do not, admit the binding authority of the fathers, yet the belief that they received the doctrine of eternal generation, has had no small influence in fostering a confidence in that doctrine, and a repugnance to any opinion subversive of it. It is on this ground, I must beg the liberty, in the present letter, to lay before you
the results of a patristical investigation somewhat extensive; in order that I may remove, if possible, from the minds of those who may read these letters, the apprehension that I am endeavouring to overthrow the faith of the ancient Church, and to establish a novel or heretical opinion, while I examine the doctrine of eternal generation, and endeavour to show that it will not bear the test of either Scripture or reason.
As a preliminary step then to the discussion which is to follow, and for the sake of preparing the
way unprejudiced judgment respecting the point in question, you will permit me to examine whether the declaration which you have made, in p. 91, respecting the unanimity of the early Christian writers in the belief of eternal generation, is well grounded.
We shall doubtless be agreed, that by the early Christian writers is meant, the Fathers who lived before the
Council of Nice or during the three first Centuries. This is a fair construction of the term early, and one which is generally admitted. At any rate, we shall agree, that the opinions of the Fathers, during this period, are more important in regard to the doctrines of the Church, than those of a subsequent date.
I begin, then, with giving the result of my investigations respecting the three first Centuries. It is this; viz. that the great body of the early and influential Christian Fathers, whose works, are extant, believed that the Son of God was begotten at a period not long before the creation of the world ; or, in other words, that he became a separate hypostasis, at or near the time, when the work of creation was to be performed. If this can be shewn, the fact that they believed in the eternal generation of the Son of God, or at least, their unanimity in receiving this doctrine, cannot surely be admitted.
Before I proceed to adduce testimonies in support of this allegation, it will be proper to remark, that I intend to confine myself solely to the testimony, which relates to two inquiries; viz, Is the generation of the Son of God eternal ? And is that generation voluntary, or necessary. The reason why I comprise the latter inquiry is, that in your Letters, p. 87, you have laid such important stress, (as many others have done,) upon necessary generation, as helping to remove the difficulties that lie in the way of admitting the doctrine in question.
With the question, whether the fathers believed Christ to be truly a divine person and worshipped him as such, I am not now at all concerned. Of course, I shall adduce no testimony which respects their opinion on that point, except what may be necessarily adducea, in consequence of its connexion with other testimony relative to the subject before us.
The historical questions before us are, Did the early fathers believe the filiation or generation of the Son of God to be eternal, in the proper sense of the word eternal ? Or in other words, Did they believe that the Logos was not only eternal, but that he was Son eternally? And did the early fathers believe this generation to be necessary
? That the Logos is truly eternal, I believe with all my heart, because, as it appears to me, the testimony of Scripture is so plain and unequivocal on this point, as to adınit of no reasonable doubt, in the mind of a man who receives the Bible as the word of God, and the unerring rule of faith. That the Logos was eternally the Son of God, I doubt; for reasons which will hereafter be stated.
I have made this statement merely to show, in what manner the testimony of writers relative to the point in question is to be estipated. To say of Christ, or of the Logos, that he is eternal, is saying nothing more, than what all who acknowledge the divine nature of the Saviour of course must say. But if this should be said a thousand times, it would not of itself prove any thing in respect to the doctrine of eternal generation. It would only prove, that the writer or speaker, who asserts it, believes Christ to possess a divine nature ; inasmuch as he assigns to him one of the attributes of the Deity. This
very plain but important principle, which should be applied in estimating the testimony to be adduced, has been entirely overloooked by Bishop Bull, in his Defensio Fidei Nicaenae. We shall find frequent occasion to acknowledge the importance of the principle, in judging of patristical testimony; for many of the leading Fathers, while they believed fully in the eternity of the Logos, considered as the reason or understanding of
the Divine Nature, which they name λογος ενδιαθετος i. e. the internal Logos, maintained that he became Son, (doyos npopopixos, eternal, produced, or generated Logos,) at or near the time, when the creation of the world took place. Now so long as this distinction was adopted, and became the common sentiment of the Antenicene sathers, merely an assertion that Christ, or the Son, or the Logos was eternal, cannot be regarded as testimony adequate to prove a belief in the doctrine of eternal generation ; unless it appears, from other parts of a writer's works, that he really maintained this doctrine. Above all, such testimony is entirely nugatory, in regard to establishing the point in question, if the writer has expressly declared his views, in regard to the simple antemundane (not eternal) generation of the Son.
Let us now proceed to adduce our testimony. In the Epistles of Clemens Romanus, (only one of which however is genuine ;) and in the letter of Barnabas, I find nothing which has any bearing upon the point under examination. Indeed, Bishop Bull himself, familiar as he was with the Fathers, and strenuous as he was, in the highest degree, respecting the point in question, has brought forward in his famous chapter De Filio ouvaidio cum Patre, but one solitary passage in favour of eternal generation, from any of the Fathers, who preceded Justin Martyr. This is from the epistles of Ignatius. In its proper place, I shall examine it.
In the Shepherd of Hermas, a writer cotemporary with Clemens Romanus, there are some passages which seem to relate to the point in question, but which Bishop Bull has omitted. “God," says he, “placed that holy Spirit,* which was created first of all, in the
* Many of the early Fathers called the exalted nature, which they attributed to Christ, πνευμα αγιον.