A Brief Examination
of the "Falling Away"
of the Church in the First Three centuries.
E. J. WAGGONER.
In his epistle to the Galatians, the apostle Paul said: "Though we, or an angel from Heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed." Gal. 1:8. Although the apostles were fallible men, the gospel which they preached, and which they have delivered to us, was perfect. The reason for this is thus given by Paul: "For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord." 2 Cor. 4:5. The apostles in their teaching adhered closely to the terms of their divine commission as uttered by Christ, "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, . . . teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you." Matt. 28:19, 20. So long as they did this, they simply transmitted the light which came to them direct from Heaven, and so their teaching could be nothing other than perfect. If they had preached themselves, it would have been far different, for they were human. (E. J. Waggoner, Fathers of the Catholic Church,(page 57).
From the preceding chapter on the apostolic church, by which term we mean simply the church in the days of the apostles, and not that part of the professed church that adhered strictly to "the apostles' doctrine," we have seen that the presence of the apostles themselves did not insure perfection in the church. It insured perfect teaching to the church; but the fact that men have perfect teaching does not make them perfect unless they follow it and nothing else. Now there are certain men who have acquired great celebrity as "Church Fathers." This term, strangely enough, is never applied to the apostles, to whom it would seem to be more applicable than to any other men, but to certain men who lived in the first few centuries of the Christian era, and who exerted a great influence on the church. As a matter of fact, the true church has but one Father, even God; therefore whatever church recognizes any men as its Fathers, must be a church of merely human planting, having only human ordinances. pp. 57, 58.
It is claimed that the "Fathers" must be competent guides, since they lived so near the days of Christ and the apostles. This is a tacit admission that the gospel which was preached by Christ and the apostles is the true standard. But that has been recorded in the New Testament; and therefore, instead of being obliged to depend on the testimony of any who lived this side of their time, we can go direct to the fountain-head, and can draw therefrom the gospel in as pure a state as though we had listened in person to the teaching of inspired men. The cases of Demas, of Hymenaeus and Philetus, of Diotrephes, and others, should be sufficient to teach anybody that mere proximity to the apostles did not fill people with the light of divine truth. Those men are proofs that the light may shine in darkness, and the darkness may not comprehend it. Therefore we must judge of the so-called Fathers, not by the time in which they lived, but by what they did and said. First, however, we will hear what reputable men have to say of them. P. 58.
Perhaps we can best begin with the words of Dr. Adam Clarke, who, in his comment on Proverbs 8, speaks of the Fathers as follows: - "But of those we may safely state, that there is not a truth in the most orthodox creed, that cannot be proved by their authority, nor a heresy that has disgraced the Romish Church, that may not challenge them as its abettors. In points of doctrine their authority is, with me, nothing." pp. 58, 59.
It is this characteristic of the Fathers which makes them so valuable to advocates of a cause which has no Scripture evidence in its support. Let a person once get the idea that the testimony of the Fathers is of value, and you may prove anything to him that you choose. In the National Baptist, there appeared an article by the "Rev. Levi Philetus Dobbs, D. D.,"-Dr. Wayland, the editor,-in reply to a young minister who had asked how he could prove a thing to his congregation when there was nothing with which to prove it. Among other things the writer said:-- p. 59.
I regard, however, a judicious use of the Fathers as being on the whole the best reliance for anyone who is in the situation of my querist. The advantages of the Fathers are twofold: First, they carry a good deal of weight with the masses; and secondly, you can find whatever you want in the Fathers. I do not believe that any opinion could be advanced so foolish, so manifestly absurd, but that you can find passages to sustain it on the pages of these venerable staggers. And to the common mind one if these is just as good as another. If it happens that the point that you want to prove is one that never chanced to occur to the Fathers, why, you can easily show that they would have taken your side if they had only thought of the matter. And if, perchance, there is nothing bearing even remotely or constructively on the point, do not be discouraged; get a good, strong quotation, and put the name of the Fathers to it, and utter it with an air of triumph; it will be all just as well; nine-tenths of the people do not stop to ask whether a quotation bears on the matter in hand. Yes, my brother, the Fathers are your stronghold. They are Heaven's best gift to the man who has a cause that cannot be sustained in any other way. March 7, 1878. (pp. 59. 60).
While the above is written in a humorous vein, it is strictly in harmony with the quotation taken from Dr. Clarke, and is in harmony with the facts in the case. The reader shall have a chance to judge of this matter for himself as we proceed. P. 60.
We quote again from Mosheim. Speaking of certain works by Clement, Justin Martyr, Tatian, Theophilus, and others, he says that these works are lost, and adds:- p. 60.
But this loss is the less to be regretted, since it is certain that no one of these expositors could be pronounced a good interpreter. They all believed the language of Scripture to contain two meanings, the one obvious and corresponding with the direct import of the words, the other recondite and concealed under the words, like a nut by the shell; and neglecting the former, as being of little value, they bestowed their chief attention on the latter; that is, they were more intent on throwing obscurity over the sacred writings by the fictions of their own imaginations, than on searching out their true meaning."-Ecclesiastical History, book 1, cent. 2, part 2, chap. 3, sec. 5. (P. 60).
In one of his latest works, "The History of Interpretation," Archdeacon Farrar says of the Fathers:-
There are but few of them whose pages are not rife with errors,--errors of method, errors of fact, errors of history, of grammar, and even of doctrine. This is the language of simple truth, not of slighting disparagement."-Pp. 162, 163. p. 60.
Again, on page 164 of the same book, Farrar says:--
Without deep learning, without linguistic knowledge, without literary culture, without any final principles either as to the nature of the sacred writings or the method by which they should be interpreted--surrounded by Paganism, Judaism, and heresy of every description, and wholly dependent on a faulty translation-- the earliest Fathers and apologists add little or nothing to our understanding of Scripture. . . . Their acquaintance with the Old Testament is incorrect, popular, and full of mistakes; their scriptural arguments are often baseless; their exegesis--novel in application only --is a chaos of elements unconsciously borrowed on the one hand from Philo, and on the other from Rabbis and Kabbalists. They claim 'a grace' of exposition, which is not justified by the results they offer, and they suppose themselves to be in possession of a Christian Gnosis, of which the specimens offered are for the most part entirely untenable. p. 61.
These quotations from Farrar should have more than ordinary weight in this matter, for, besides the Catholic Church, there is no other church that depends so much upon the Fathers as does the Church of England, or Episcopal Church. P. 61.
In the last quotation from Farrar, this expression occurs: "Surrounded by Paganism, Judaism, and heresy of every description," etc. This seems to be forgotten by most people who laud the Fathers. They speak of them as living near the time of the apostles, but overlook the fact that they lived still nearer to another time, namely, the time of gross paganism. Now if their character were to be determined by the character of the people to whom they were nearest in point of time, we submit that the antecedent probability that they would assume the color of paganism, is greater than that they would assume the color of Christianity. pp. 61, 62.
"But," says one, "there is this element in their favor, and against the idea that they were influenced more by paganism than by Christianity: they professed Christianity, and combated paganism; they studied the works of the apostles, and so took on their character." P. 62.
This is a great mistake. As a matter of fact, the so-called Fathers studied the works of pagan philosophers far more than they did those of the apostles. They affected to be philosophers themselves; and while they did indeed make a show of combating paganism, the weapons which they used were drawn from pagan philosophy more frequently than from the Bible. And even when they quoted from the Bible, their pagan notions warped their interpretation. So in their encounters with paganism, we have for the most part nothing but one form of paganism arrayed against another form of paganism. On this point De Quincey, in his essay on "The Pagan Oracles," says:-- P. 62.
But here and everywhere, speaking of the Fathers as a body, we charge them with antichristian practices of a twofold order: Sometimes as supporting their great cause in a spirit alien to its own, retorting in a temper not less uncharitable than that of their opponents; sometimes, again, as adopting arguments that are unchristian in their ultimate grounds; resting upon errors the the reputation of errors, upon superstitions the overthrow of superstitions; and drawing upon the armories of darkness for weapons that, to be durable, ought to have been of celestial temper. Alternately, in short, the Fathers trespass against those affections which furnish to Christianity its moving powers, and against those truths which furnish to Christianity its guiding lights. Indeed, Milton's memorable attempt to characterize the Fathers as a body, contemptuous as it is, can hardly be challenged as overcharged. pp, 62, 63.
Never in any instance were these aberrations of the Fathers more vividly exemplified than in their theories upon the pagan oracles. On behalf of God, they were determined to be wiser than God; and, in demonstration of scriptural power, to advance doctrines which the Scriptures had nowhere warranted. P. 63.
Much more testimony to the same effect will be adduced as we proceed. We will now listed to another statement from Mosheim. In his account of the Christian church in the second century he says:-
The controversial writers who distinguished themselves in this century, encountered either the Jews, or the worshipers of idol gods, or the corrupters of the Christian doctrine and the founders of new sects, that is, the heretics. With the Jews, contended in particular Justin Martyr, in his dialogue with Trypho; and likewise Tertullian; but neither of them, in the best manner; because they were not acquainted with the language and history of the Hebrews, and did not duly consider the subject. The pagans were assailed by those especially, who wrote apologies for the Christians; as Athenagoras, Melito, Quadratus, Miltiades, Aristides, Tatian, and Justin Martyr; or who composed addresses to the pagans; as Justin, Tertullian, Clement, and Theophilus of Antioch. p, 63.
A man of sound judgment who has due regard for truth, cannot extol them highly. Most of them lacked discernment, knowledge, application, good arrangement, and force. They often advance very flimsy arguments, and such as are suited rather to embarrass the mind than to convince the understanding."-Ecclesiastical History, book 1, cent. 2, part 2, chap. 3, sec. 7. p, 63.
In the same chapter (section 10), Mosheim sums up the case concerning the Fathers as follows:- p. 63.
To us it appears that their writings contain many things excellent, well considered, and well calculated to enkindle pious emotions; but also many things unduly rigorous, and derived from the stoic and academic philosophy; many things vague and indeterminate; and many things positively false, and inconsistent with the precepts of Christ. If one deserves the title of a bad master in morals, who has no just ideas of the proper boundaries and limitations of Christian duties, nor clear and distinct conceptions of the different virtues and vices, nor a perception of those general principles to which recurrence should be had in all discussions respecting Christian virtue, and therefore very often talks at random, and blunders in expounding the divine laws; though he may say many excellent things, and excite in us considerable emotion; then I can readily admit that in strict truth, this title belongs to many of the Fathers. p, 64.
After reading the above, we are not surprised that, in harmony with Dr. Clarke and the "Rev. Levi Philetus Dobbs," Mosheim says:-
It is therefore not strange, that all sects of Christians can find in what are called the Fathers, something to favor their own opinions and systems. p, 64.
This is strictly true; but although "these venerable staggers" sometimes stumbled upon the truth, they furnish the most aid and comfort to those sects which pursue the most unscriptural practices, as, for instance, the Catholics and the Mormons. It is very seldom that their testimony is quoted in behalf of any really scriptural doctrine or custom. p, 64.
To show that these so-called Fathers are not only faulty in matters of doctrine, but are also untrustworthy as to matters of fact, we quote from Mosheim, who asserts that,- p, 64.
But it must by no means pass unnoticed, that the discussions instituted against the opposers of Christianity in this age, departed far from the primitive simplicity, and the correct method of controversy. For the Christian doctors, who were in part educated in the schools of rhetoricians and sophists, inconsiderately transferred the arts of these teachers to the cause of Christianity; and therefore considered it of no importance, whether an antagonist were confounded by base artifices, or by solid arguments. Thus that mode of disputing, which the ancients called economical, and which had victory rather than truth for its object, was almost universally approved. And the Platonists contributed to the currency of the practice, by asserting that it was no sin for a person to employ falsehood and fallacies for the support of truth, when it was in danger of being borne down."- Ecclesiastical History, book 1, cent. 3, part 2, chap. 3, sec. 10. (p. 65).