Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

have excited the greatest outcry imaginable ; as it did after. wards, when that doctrine was advanced, and as it continues to do at this very day.

As all the Jews expected that their Messiah would be a mere man, the natural descendant of David, it is evident that the apostles, and other primitive christians, who were all zealous Jews, must have received him as such. It is evident from the Gospels, and is acknowledged by all christian writers of the four first centuries, that the apostles contidered him in no other light during the whole of their intercourse with him; having no idea of his being God, or the creator of the world under God. It is no less evident from the Acts of the Apostles, and is also acknowledged by the same early writers, who were themselves trinitarians, that the apostles announced him as such to their nation, and the world, viz, as nothing more than a man approved of God by figns and wonders which God did by him, and whom God had raised from the dead. . And that they had any private information of their inafier being of a higher rank in the creation than themselves, but that they thought it prudent to use great reserve in the communication of this knowledge to others (though such is said to have been their conduct by the ancient trinitarian writers above referred to) is absolutely incredible.'

We own that, from the mof careful consideration and comparison of the tenor of the apostles' writings, it appears to us, that their great object of opposition was the errors of the Gnoftics, to which we may add, that the Jews, in this state, were pot fit to receive the more complicated doctrine of the Trinity. The apofles must have known what were the accusations againft their divine mafter ; and if they had not felt the force of this doctrine, a doctrine which they declined explaining or commenting on, the injustice of the sentence in this view must have been sometimes the subject of their discourses.

The second period contains the History of the Chriftian Church to the end of the Reign of Adrian, including the per. fecution under Domitian. We may observe, in general, of persecutions, that they were neither extensive nor constant, The fanaticism of the mob was always ready to attribute every misfortune to the Christians, and at times they drew a Now, occafionally a reluctant, edią from the emperors. If we confine the tolerance to the rulers rather than to the people, Mr. Gibbon's representation is more consonant to hiftory, and to the state of opinions in that æra, than the violent descriptions of many authors who think Christianity is more honoured as it was more persecuted, and with a savage minuteness count the wounds of the martyrs as the glories of the Gospel. In reality, the forbearance of the emperors was often owing to

M 4

- contemps contempt rather than humanity, and the fury of the multitude was excited by the most improbable calumnies, the fic. tions probably of the Jews.

of the Gnoftice in this period, our historian gives a parti. ·cular account ; and they seem to have been a neutral fect, sometimes holding their peculiar tenets in conjunction with the law, sometimes with the Gospel. It is evident that they were held in the highest deteftation by the more rational Cbris. tians of this period, and their denying the resurrection, the great discovery revealed by Chris, fully accounts for this deteftation. Of the Chriftian writers in this part, much has been-already said. The authenticity of the thepherd of Hermas, and the Epistles of Barnabas Clemens we cannot discuss with any advantage. Dr. Priestley seems too intent on estab, lishing his own system, when he adds, that reading works.in the church was not a proper criterion of their being written, in the opinion of the early Christians, by inspiration. We. suspect it is not very generally believed at this moment, that every part of the books now read in churches is inspired, and itis not very easy to find any avtbor fo adventurous as to point out those particular parts which are dictated by inspiration. Philo, an author much attached to the Platonic philofophy, in Dr. Priestley's opinion, the person who led the way to those speculations which ended in the doctrine of the Trinity, and Josephus, an historian well known, are the last authors ia his account of this period.

The third period extends from the death of Adrian in 138, to that of Marcus Aurelius, one of the most philosophical of cmperors, and one of the most determined enemies of the Cbriftians. The mod distinguished martyrs in this reign were Polycarp and Juftin; but the mind is much pained by the horrors of the punishments too minutely detailed. The Montanifts, a feet chiefly distinguished by their austerities, belong to this æra, an æra, however, most remarkable by its being the epoch of the Trinitarian doctrine. We have always confidered the system of the Gnoftics as leading the way to the application of the Platonic reveries to the Christian fyftem. The logos of Plato, the divine ray, was not very diftant from the phantom of the Gnoftics; but with the Chriftian Platonifts this day was a tached to a human being, and the Word was made Fleth: Whatever may have been the opinion of the transcendent excellency of Christ, the apostles certainly did not raife their ideas to high as to determine the degree of that excellence, or to decide whether Chrift, who was to fit on the right hand of God, was equal with God. This was to be the work of a more specolative age, and of a careful comparison of the conos-and general fpirit of the scriptures. Dr. Priestley thinks it was received with difpleasure: it was certainly explained with caution, and received, as might be expected from its incomprehenGble Dature, with reserve. After explaining this doctrine as it was first promulgated, our author proceeds to examine the face of the Jews in this period and the subsequent ones, collected - chiefly from Basnage's history of this nation; and he observes that from the time when the doctrine of the Trinity came to be generally professed by the learned Chriftians, we read of ' few or no converts to Christianity from the Jews. This doctrine, he thinks, was highly disagreeable to these zealous prou , feffors of the divine unity, and if they are ever to be convert. ed to the Gospel, it muít be, in our historian's opinion, ou the Unitarian system. But on examining the extent of this period, we must attribute this fact to another cause, or congder The Trinitarian doctrine as spreading more rapidly chan Unitarians will perhaps willingly allow..

The fourth period extends from the reign of Commodes ia 180, to that of Decius in 249; and, as ufual, is divided into the general history, particular transactions, progress of the old and appearance of new do&rines and fects, concluding with the account of the writers. We must speak only of what. - is moft remarkable. In this period the perfecutions were neither severe, general, nor long continued. Christianity flousilhed, and the relaxation of the rulers lessened the fervour of zeal, the fortitude of sufferers, and allowed the refless mind to follow its peculiar doctrines, and the imagination to foar beyond the judgment. To this period, and to the relaxation, which was the effect of security, we must attribute what will be more conspicuous in the subsequent one, the temerity with which many denied the tenets of Chrift, or escaped from persecution, and what was the immediate consequence, thic extraordinary merit attributed to martyrs, those who had fuffered panishment for their religion; and to confeffors, who had the boldness to own their faith in Chrift.' This period of fecurity also gave rise to fome superstitious opinions (we have. no hesitation in this instance in ufing Dr. Priefley's language) and some triding controversies. The dispute concerning the period of Easter, or an annual feftival in commemoration of the resurrection of Christ, was one of these ; and the opinions respecting the sacred nature, as well as the real purifying vir tue' of baptism, and the elements received in the Lord's Sup per, are proofs of the progress of fuperftition. "

. The Unitarians in this period became more conspicuous. The distinguishing term, however, feems to how them to have been considered as a peculiar feet; and if Ebionite is derived

from

from poverty, it is not probable that this name should have been given by the unbelieving Jews, ' on account of the contempt in which they held them.' The Ebionites, as preserving the unity of the Godhead, Mould rather have been treated by the Jews with peculiar respect. This period was, however, distinguished by the first treatise written against them, viz. A. D. 185, which we would account for in a manner different from Dr. Priestley, by supposing that they were not before this time considered as important or respectable. Their name is some proof, and it is remarkable that, at this time or foon afterwards, the greater part of the bishops were Trisitarians or Platonising Christians, in our historian's words. If the former had been considered as the real doctrine of the apostles, and the latter an innovation, it is surprising that a change fo general passed without a controversy, - In the next period, from the reign of Decius, 249, to that of Dioclefian A. D. 284, we find a severe persecution, begun by a fanatical mob in Egypt, and continued for some time by the authority of the emperor's edict. It appears, however, to have been but a short one occasionally renewed under Gallus and Valerian, though the excesses of the common people, excesses generally sudden and often temporary, probably contisued while the seins of empire were held with a trembling Qofteady hand. In the accounts, it must be remembered, that we read the descriptions of Christians who must have been eager to accumulate every tale of horror, to enhance their own for titude or to confirm that of their disciples. This æra was ditinguished by the timidity we have before accounted for, and the rise of a new fect of austere Puritans, the Novatians, called Cathari (nabapoi, clean,) from their extraordinary virtue. It does not appear what the peculiar tenets of Novato's in osher respects were, but that they differed from those gener. ally adopted is probable, from the Novatians rebaptifing such as quitted the Catholic church to join them. The Nova. tians, in our historian's opinion, were of great use in quickening the zeal and lessening the despotism of the church, as 'well as in promoting free enquiry and discussion, advantages which Dr. Prietley thinks, perhaps with justice, have attend. ed dissent and schisms in every age. The origin of the monks, to be traced evidently from the reveries of the Gnoftics, and their opinion concerning the supreme excellence of the soul, and its rifing by contemplation beyond this lower sphere, not. withstanding its earthly clog, is explained by a neat masterly outline of the whole subject. Retirement was at this time first practised, as the persecution began in Egypt, and the mountains of the Thebais and neighbourhood afforded secure

retreate.

retreats. What a treasure on this subject might we not have expected from the united researches and abilities of Dr. White and Mr. Badcock, if death and other accidents had not pre. vented the prosecution of the design? The Unitarians, in this period, seem to advance in credit and dignity; and the chief of the Millenarians, in the conference with Dionyfius, is said to have been convinced of the error of at least some of his tenets,

The fixth period relates to the persecution under Dioclefian A. D. 302, to the settlement of the empire under Constan'. tine A. D. 313'-completed only in 325. The period, Dr. Priestley observes, was • favourable to Christianity, fo far as related to the general acknowledgement of its truth, but highly unfavourable with regard to its effects on the hearts and lives of men.' In our historian's view, however, the chief blot in this period is the union of the religious and civil fyr: tems of Christianity with the temporal power, which employ: ed as much cruelty against its porer fpecies' as was ever employed against Christianity itlelf. This short period was diftinguished by a severe persecution more continued and se. vere than the church had yet experienced ; but by this means the diseases of indolence and security were removed, and the ancient spirit and zeal of Christians revived. In the account of this persecution, the historian follows Eusebius; but though he has classed in a separate chapter the narrative of those pu. nishments, mixed with fable, yet we strongly suspect many of the facts, supposed to be authentic, are misrepresented or fabu. lous. When the wild beasts to which the Christians were expored, retired on their making the sign of the cross, it would have completed the story, if the sword, the last instrument employed, had lost its temper. In short, from many circunstances, we suspect the timid bishop of Cæsarea to have been often deceived, or to have copied from those terrors which haunted his mind, when he was led to make some improper conceflions. It is well observed that the Christian religion, at the time of the accession of Conítantine, must have been widely disseminated, as in the period of the greatest disturbances there was no heathen competitor; but might we not with equal reasor add, that Unitarianism could not be very prevalent when a Trinitarian emperor was allowed to fit equally on the throne. Were the Unitarians asleep that they did not oppose the idolater and the idolatry, or were they still literally Ebionites ? Our author's observations on the intrinsic merit and the undeniable evidence of that religion, which could not only support itself, but extend so widely, notwithstanding every kind of opposition from learning, power, and philosophy, are truly excellent and convincing.

At

« ZurückWeiter »