Tracts for the Times
ON THE MYSTICISM ATTRIBUTED TO THE FATHERS OF THE CHURCH
by John Keble
§ii.-Specimen of ancient Mysticism in interpreting Scripture.
(1.) First, as to the matter of fact ; we need not perhaps hesitate to admit in the most unreserved way,indeed it might be hard to find any one who has ever denied,the universal adoption, by the early Christian writers, of the allegorical way of expounding the Old Testament. They do undoubtedly profess to find an intended figurative and Christian meaning, in innumerable places, which are neither express prophecies, nor alluded to as types in the New. Not only in the prophetical writings do they find our Lord and His Gospel every where ; not only do they trace throughout the Levitical services the example and shadow of the future heavenly things; but they deal also in the same way with the records of history, whether Patriarchal or Jewish ; and with the fragments which the Holy Ghost has caused to be preserved out of the moral and devotional poetry of the Hebrews,the Book of Job, the Psalms, and the Proverbs, and (what is in some respects the most significant and remarkable instance of all) the Song of Solomon from beginning to end.
The general fact is doubtless familiar to all; being constantly produced, on the one hand, by the assailants of the Fathers(for "whole books," as Middleton contemptuously says9, "have been compiled of their foolish reasonings in religion ;")nor, on the other band, has their exercise of this mode of interpretation been ever disputed, as a fact, by their defenders : whether it has been duly appreciated by the writers of either party, is altogether another question. Nowhere, perhaps, among our English divines, will the subject be found treated more thoughtfully or more worthily, than by Bishop Fell, in his notes on St. Cyprian, and on the Apostolical Fathers. However, in so great a consent of witnesses, one may state the case largely without presumption, and without affecting more than a superficial knowledge of Antiquity.
(2.) Let it then be taken for granted, that a mode of expounding, which would seem to most men fanciful and strained, generally prevails in the Christian writers of the first centuries. The great point will be, to account in some measure for this fact. In order to which it may be expedient, not by way of proof but of illustration, if we take some one remarkable instance, and trace it as we may through the writings of some of the most eminent and earliest Fathers. And, not to give them any undue advantage, it may be well to select one of those subjects, their treatment of which is commonly considered most extravagant ; a subject, which has attracted towards them in no common degree the contemptuous wonder of modern critics and philosophers : I mean, their discovering tokens of our Lords Passion, and more especially the Sign of the Cross, in innumerable places of the Old Testament, which neither are so expounded in the New, nor to common eyes betray of themselves any such allusion.
(3.) To begin with the Epistle attributed to St. Barnabas ; it is well known how unreservedly it adopts the allegorical mode of interpretation. Supposing it not to be written by the Apostle,a supposition which involves no charge of forgery, since it no where professes to be his; and in which it, may not be wrong to acquiesce, rather, however, for want of ecclesiastical testimony to its genuineness, than for any thing unworthy of such an origin to be discovered in the epistle itself,it is undoubtedly by the manner in which St. Clement of Alexandria quotes it, a monument of the age next after the Apostles, and almost as undoubtedly, judging by internal evidence, it was meant as what in our days would be called popular hortatory tract, intended to reconcile the Christians of the circumcision to the utter rejection of the Jewish people. And by one expression in it10, we may perhaps reasonably assign its date, to the year 136 or thereabouts; when Adrian, having overthrown the rebel Jews under Bar Cochab, was most active in building Ælia on the site of Jerusalem, and a Gentile Christian Church was beginning to flourish there. To this, as it may seem, the author of the Epistle applies the prophecy of Isaiah, (xlix. 17.) according to the reading of the LXX : '"Thou shalt be quickly builded by those who were thy destroyers:" this, says he, is now in course of accomplishment. For their rising in war led to the subversion of their city by their enemies ; but now the very servants of the same enemies are building it up again.'
This date deserves notice, because it suggests a sufficient reason for the freedom with which the author, in a popular tract, exhibits the method of symbolical exposition, which was generally rather withdrawn from ordinary eyes. The calamity, perhaps, was great and astounding enough to justify disclosures otherwise irregular, for the, consolation and establishment of the faithful. However, certain it is that this epistle, which is addressed to Christian men and women without distinction, might be not unfitly selected for a specimen of the mystical way, as applied to the old Testament.
(4.) As concerning the Passion and Cross of our Lord in particular, (to say nothing of the sacrifice of Isaac, the typical nature whereof, as it seems, no age of Christians has ever denied, notwithstanding the silence of Scripture,) St. Barnabas has the following passage11 : Israel being attacked by the aliens, with a view amongst other things, of signifying to the people, that their transgressions were the cause of their being given over to death, the Spirit speaks inwardly to Moses, to form a type of the Cross, and of Him who was to suffer : that if men refuse to trust in Him, they will have no peace for ever. Moses therefore places one shield on another in the middle of the mound and being thus posted high above all, he stretches out his hands, and so Israel began again to be victorious : afterwards, when on the contrary he let down his hands, again they were slaughtered. Wherefore? That men might know there is no chance of salvation, except they put their trust in Him. And in another prophet he says, "All the day long I have stretched forth my hands to a disobedient and gainsaying people." What is very observable, the Author next goes, on to mention, with just the same confidence, and no more the, typical meaning of the Brasen Serpent : observing, with his usual piety, "Thou hast in the glory of Jesus; that in Him, and to Him are all things.
Had it seemed good to Gods providence, that the discourse of our Lord to Nicodemus should have been lost, as so many other of His divine words were, would not the Christian interpretation of this latter miracle have seemed to many forced, and fanciful, just as that of that of the former may perhaps seem now? And ought not this single consideration to stop the mouths of all, who have any reverence in their hearts, when they find themselves tempted to join in hasty censure or scorn of such, interpretations? For aught they know, they may be scorning or censuring the very lessons of our Divine Master Himself.
(12.) I proceed to another, historical type, which to many may appear more extravagant. The Author is reasoning on the history of Abraham, to prove the insufficiency of Jewish circumcision out of the Old Testament itself. So far, as, will occur to every one, he is treading in the steps of St. Paul. After producing many passages to that purpose, he closes the subject with the following12 : Consider whether there be not abundant instruction on this whole matter, in the account given us that Abraham, who first gave men circumcision, did thereby, perform a spiritual and typical action, looking forward to the Son: and that, upon receiving certain doctrines conveyed in three (mystical) letters. For He saith, Abraham circumcised of his house, men to the number of three hundred and eighteen. What then is the mysterious truth thus vouchsafed to him? Observe the eighteen first, then the three hundred. Of the two letters, which stand for 18, 10 is represented by "I", 8 by "H". Thou hast here the word Jesus : i. e., the two first letters, which formed as it were a cypher of the sacred Name, familiar to the eyes and thoughts of the Christians of that generation : as was also the third of the numeral letters in question, which the writer next goes on to explain : Because the Cross, which is signified to the eye by the letter Tau, was intended to bring the grace, [to which he looked forward ;] he adds the three hundred also, the letter Tau representing that number. By the two first letters then the name Jesus is indicated, and by the third the cross.
On this commentary, which as well as the former has been adopted by multitudes of the early interpreters13, several remarks occur, which it may be well to put down, as they will each of them apply to a whole class of examples, and to difficulties which are certain to arise in many of our minds, though we were never so resolutely on our guard against prejudices of mere taste and association.
(13.) First, it may be observed that the several circumstances, which may appear at first sight startling in this exposition, though not perhaps united in any one Scriptural example, have yet, each severally, undoubted sanction of Scripture. Thus, the use of the numeral letters as a cypher to convey some mysterious truth has a well-known precedent in the Book of Revelation. Again the passage in St. Barnabas is an instance of the combination of texts apparently remote, but really bearing on the same subject : for the number, three hundred and eighteen, is not mentioned in the account of the circumcision of Abrahams family, but is borrowed from the previous enumeration occasioned by, the war with Chedorlaomer14. Now, this sort of combination of remote texts appears to be warranted, in one instance at least, by our blessed Lord Himself. Is it not written, My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer?" So far is taken from Isaiah, but the conclusion of the sentence, Ye have made it a den of thieves, was addressed by Jeremiah to a subsequent generation15.
Now whether the fact were really so or not, (if it were, it was surely by special providence,) that Abrahams household at the time of circumcision was exactly the same number as before : still the argument of St. Barnabas will stand. As thus : circumcision had from the beginning a reference to our Saviour, as in other respects, so in this ; that the mystical number, which is the cypher of Jesus crucified, was the number of the first circumcised household, in the strength of which Abraham prevailed against the powers of the world. So St. Clement of Alexandria16, as cited by Fell17 : "It is commonly supposed that we have here an indication of a correspondency between the case of Abrahams household and the method of salvation : of the victory obtained by those who have betaken themselves to the Holy Sign and Name, over those who led them captive, and the innumerable tribes of unbelievers who follow in their train."
(14.) Nor is warrant of Scripture wanting for that which must otherwise seem most inadmissible in this interpretation; the appeal, namely, to the Greek Bible, as having, something like divine authority. And this again is a topic which meets us throughout the remains both the Greek and Latin Fathers. The Septuagint, and Latin versions clearly made from it are everywhere unscrupulously quoted as the words of inspiration ; with the exception, perhaps, of St. Jerome. Some of the Fathers opponents would insinuate, that this rests on the tradition reported by Aristeas, of a miraculous consent among the original translators, even in the minutest point. But this is refuted by the language, of St. Augustine, who speaks doubtfully of that tradition, but without any doubt of this particular version being, so overruled by a prophetic Spirit18 that even in, those places where it swerved from the Hebrew Verity, there was a special providential design in such variation19.
Now, can it be denied, that this idea receives countenance from the mode in which the Old Testament is quoted in the New? In the Epistle to the Hebrews, for example, St. Paul argues at large the necessity of the Mediators death, from the use of the word d i a q ¢ h k h , "Testament," in the LXX to represent that Hebrew word which is commonly translated Covenant. "For this cause," says he, "it is a New Testament, of which Christ is said to be Mediator, that by means of death the called might receive the promise ; for where a Testament is pleaded, the death of the testator must necessarily be alleged. For a Testament is valid in the case of the dead, since it never avails, as long as the testator is alive20." And he goes on to show how the word was applicable to the Mosaic covenant also, i. e. by the typical death of the sacrifices. Who does not see that this reasoning is grounded entirely in the Greek version? since the Hebrew (NA) does not in any way answer to the notion of a last will. St. Pauls reasoning implies, therefore, thus much at least concerning the LXX ; that in their rendering of this very critical word, they were providentially directed to the use of a term, which should convey an allusion to a great Christian mystery. And so far the Apostle warrants the judgment of St. Augustine21 : "Whoever besides shall truly translate any portion of the Old Testament from Hebrew into another language:" (St. Jerome, of course, was in his mind :) "his version will be found either to agree with that of the LXX or if it appears not to agree, in that very disagreement we must believe that there exists some deep prophetic meaning." Nay, even St. Jerome, when he is impugning their authority, seems to own that there might exist in them a modified and inferior kind of inspiration. "I do22 not condemn, I do not blame the LXX, but I confidently prefer the Apostles to them all. Christ speaks to me by the lips of those, concerning whom I read23, that they stand even before Prophets in the order of spiritual gifts; in which order the interpretation of tongues occupies nearly the last place.
We have seen that in one place at least this view is justified by the Scripture : and one place is sufficient for our present purpose, which is not to prove the LXX infallible, but to bespeak a certain reverence for their yet unexamined decisions, and for the constant appeals of the early, writers to them. For who can assure himself, that in any, variation, from the Hebrew, which seems to him most unaccountable, they were not guided by the same influence, which caused them to write Testament instead of Covenant, in the places referred to by St. Paul?
(15.) To return to the passage in Genesis : in whatever measure the fact is made out, that the received Greek version of the Scriptures was under a peculiar providence, in the same degree it is rendered not improbable that even in such an apparently casual thing, as the number of Abrahams servants, there was an eye to the benefit and consolation which the Church should long after receive, on recognising, as it were, her Saviours cypher, in the account of the one holy family triumphantly warring against the powers of the world. It, were a most inadequate judgment, to estimate that consolation by any of the feelings and opinions current in our time. We must go back to the days when Christians were used to carry about with them everywhere the Sign of the Cross; when, to use the forcible words of Tertullian24 :
"At every step and every movement, going out and coming in, dressing and putting on their sandals, at the bath, at the board, when lamps were lighted, when they lay down to rest, when they seated themselves for their daily task, whatever call of ordinary life engaged them, the Holy Sign, by incessant use, was, as it were worn into their foreheads."
With such associations, it must have been a real joy to them, as often as they discovered the Cross in the Old Testament, where they had not marked it before: it was to them an outward and visible sign of their communion with Saints and Patriarchs of old, and of Gods everlasting providence over both. It was moreover a permanent warning, intelligible to all, against the impiety, not unusual in those days of ascribing the two Testaments to different deities. People little know what they do, when they deal contemptuously with any thing, be it in Scripture or in common life, under the notion that it is too slight, too insignificant for the ordering of the Most High.
(16.) All which considered, there appears no fanaticism, but a great deal of sober piety and charity, in the expressions of St. Barnabas on dismissing this topic. "He knows" the reality of this mystery "from whom we" Christians or Christian teachers, "derive the ingrafted gift of that teaching, which is properly His. Never have I ever delivered to anyone a more genuine exposition, but I am well-assured that you are meet to receive it."
If the writer had been merely indulging his own fancy, this profession of reserve would be mere affectation. But surely, to esteem it such is too hard a supposition, considering the perfect simplicity and moral purity of the precepts at the end of the Epistle. His very tone and manner, then, creates an additional presumption, that the exposition that he had been giving was not private but ecclesiastical, and the sort of scruple, with which he imparts it, an instance of that discipline of reserve, which the Church recommended in the conveyance of all her mysteries.
(17.) Neither need anyone be staggered at the idea, which his manner of speaking seems to imply, that Abraham himself was not ignorant of this mystery; a notion upon which Dr. Whitby has built what he conceives to be a triumphant refutation of the allegory. "The Hebrew letter Tau25," he observes, "neither bears the form of the Cross26, nor is the symbol of the number three hundred ; and as to the Greek letters, they were not invented till long after Abrahams time." Well ; but does St. Barnabas affirm that Abraham himself knew the meaning of the Greek cypher? If he did, he might suppose it made known by prophetic inspiration; according to the received exposition of the text in St. John, "Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day." But what are St. Barnabas own words? "He circumcised his family, l a b w n t r i v n g r a m m ¢ a t w n d óg m a t a , after he had received the doctrines of the three letters." I. e. certain mysterious truths, of which the three symbols were to be a symbol. It is not said that he received them by the three letters.
Again, after stating the number of the household, he asks, t íz o u n h d o q e i s a t o u t w g n w s i z ; which may be perhaps best construed, "What is the evangelical meaning of the signs given to him?" taking g n w s i z objectively, for the truth sealed up, not subjectively, for the impression on Abrahams mind. It is not therefore necessary to understand St. Barnabas as asserting that the holy Patriarch himself had this secret revealed to him. For any thing he affirms, it might be a g n w s i z , the outward cypher of which only was given to Abraham, the key reserved for the times of our Lord and His Gospel.
And after all, a mistake in that particular could not fairly invalidate the whole interpretation. There is a school of theologians, which maintains that Abel must have known the full doctrine of the Atonement. Those who hesitate in allowing this, do not therefore doubt the typical and mystical import of Abels history. So in this case, we might believe St. Barnabas, stating what was known in his time to be the signification of the three letters, while we demurred to his supposition, that it was known also to Abraham.
(18.) There is yet one more instance, in this ancient epistle, of allegorical interpretation with reference to the Cross of our Lord : an instance which like the former may stand at the head of a class, and being well-considered, may throw much light on another wide province of the so-called mysticism of the Church. "Let us see," says the writer27, "whether the Lord has seen good to give men prophetical indications of the Water and the Cross." Then, after other texts, he alleges the first Psalm, "He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of waters, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season ; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper. The ungodly are not so, but are like the chaff which the wind driveth away; therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous. For the Lord knoweth the way of the righteous : but the way of the ungodly shall perish." Then, "Observe," says be, "how, distinctly the prophet has pointed out the tree and the water in combination. For what he says, comes to this : Blessed are they who, setting their hope in the cross, have descended into the water: for I will render their reward in its time, i. e. hereafter. But for the present, the Psalmist adds, his leaf shall not wither, i. e. every word which shall go out of your mouth in faith and love, shall be to the conversion and hope of many." The allusion to the Cross is here brief and obscure, turning as it does upon the single word t ò x u l o n . But the moral of the passage is surely most noble and beautiful. "The Cross, applied by Holy Baptism, gaining the victory over the powers of the world, is not only the pledge and mean, but also the emblem, of the faithful mans triumph over his spiritual enemies. It is the pattern, as its Lord is the giver, of all victory. And therefore, blessed is the man who walks strictly according to all the rules of a holy life for be is like the Cross Of Christ success is sure, his lot, to bear fruit eternally without stint or measure."
Every one must admire the thought, but the question now is, how it is derived from the Psalm. The account of which, and of, many like texts, seems to be as follows : The old Christian writers, either by tradition, or by a feeling so general that it seemed almost like a natural instinct, believed that the phrase t ò x u l o n , wherever introduced in the Old Testament, was intended to lead their thoughts to the cross ; of which in their ordinary speech, t ò x u l o n was perhaps the most frequently appellative. Accordingly, not only such obvious analogies as Isaac bearing the wood of his sacrifice, the Brasen Serpent, or such a place as that in Isaiah, "The government," i.e. the sign of power, the victorious Cross, "shall be upon his shoulder ;"but every rod also, or staff or sceptre, mentioned by either of the sacred writers, as it was a token of guidance, support, or dominion, was, in the Fathers judgment, a designed emblem of the Cross.
(19.) The best way, perhaps, of exemplifying this, will be to transcribe from Justin Martyrs dialogue with Tryphon, which may be considered as a popular view of the primâ facie evidence for Christianity in the Old Testament, the remarkable passage28 in which he undertakes to prove, that "since the time of our Lords crucifixion, there hath been inseparably associated with Him that which is an emblem, on the one hand, of the tree of life, the plantation of which in Paradise had been matter of early revelation ; on the other hand, it is also an emblem of the course appointed by the Almighty for the righteous." This passage, then, professedly gives the view, which the Christians of Justins time took of large portions of the ancient Scriptures: and it is noticeable also on another account, that it has attracted, the especial scorn of rationalist writers : the language, for example, of Middleton concerning it, is marked (I had almost said) by brutal irreverence29. However, thus Justin proceeds :
"Moses with a rod was sent to redeem the people ; and bearing this in his hand, in the place of sovereignty over them, he divided the Red Sea. It was by this that the rock gave forth water, gushing out in his sight. It was a tree which he cast into the waters of Marah, which being bitter were so made sweet. It was by means of rods cast into the water, that Jacob caused the sheep of his mothers brother so to conceive, that the young might fall to his share. With his rod, or staff, he, the same Jacob, passed over the water [of Jordan] as he himself boasts. He declared that a ladder had been seen by him, and that it was God Himself who was stationed on the top thereof, the Scripture hath expressly affirmed." This example is not irrelevant, since a ladder is part (so to speak) of the furniture of the Cross. Then having digressed on some other emblems occurring in the vision at Bethel, Justin goes on : "It was the rod of Aaron, which by its budding declared him the High Priest. That as a rod from the root of Jesse, Christ should be born, Isaiah foretold ; and David saith that the righteous man is as the tree planted by the river of waters, which shall bring forth fruit in its season, and his leaf shall not wither :" where we have Justins sanction for the interpretation which St. Barnabas bad given before him. "Again, he saith, The righteous shall flourish like a palm. From a tree God appeared to Abraham, as it is written, at the oak of Mamre. Seventy willows and twelve fountains the people found, having passed over Jordan. By a rod and a staff David affirms that he received comfort from his God. It was wood which Elisha cast into the river Jordan, and so brought up the iron of the axe, wherewith the sons of the prophets had gone forth, to cut timber for building that mansion, wherein it was their purpose to recite and study, the law and the commandments of God. Even as when we were plunged deep in the most grievous sins, which had been our practice, by His Crucifixion on the tree, and by the water of His Purification, our Christ redeemed us, and caused us to become an house of prayer and adoration [to Himself]. Also, it was a rod which manifested Judah to be the father of those [twins] who were so born of Thamar, as to exhibit a great mystery."
(20.) From this enumeration, which contains in brief the substance of a great body of commentaries, the chain of ideas is at once apparent, which led to the mystical exposition of the first Psalm. As in the former instances, the uplifted arm of Moses, and the cypher inclosed in the number of Abrahams household, it was the form of the Cross which conveyed the divine intimation : so here the material of the Cross, is found imbued with the like emblematical virtues.
Again, as St. Barnabas, had produced this Psalm as shadowing out a mystic combination of the Cross, and the Water, and therefore representing the condition of Christian people; so in almost all the anecdotes, parables, and allusions collected by Justin, the like combination is observable. Thus, to take the history of Moses, the virtue of his rod was shown at the Red Sea, and in bringing water out of the rock; the water of Marah was sweetened by the tree, which he cast in : the trees and fountains of Elim seen together, were the earnest of hope to the Israelites at their entrance on the wilderness. Elishas causing iron to swim was a token, as we have seen, of our deliverance, "by the Crucifixion on the tree, and the water of purification."
It will be at once seen what a strong light is thrown, by such a series of examples, on the doctrine of the Sacraments, as held by that generation. The Cross and the Water, it is taken for granted, go together to save a man.
(21.) But in order to appreciate rightly the Fathers reasoning in such places, we ought of course to recollect, that its force lies in the accumulation of instances. It is not necessary that: each anecdote, taken by itself, should be a complete type of the evangelical truth, at which the sum of the whole points : e. g. though a person questioned the distinct allusion to any Christian mystery, in the account, taken singly, of Jacobs using rods to influence the breed of Labans cattle, still it must come in as one among many examples, to show how constantly the Almighty employed that material, which was to be the instrument of redemption, as a conveyance of temporal blessings to His chosen people.
Nor must we omit the scriptural sanction, which may seem to be vouchsafed to this whole class of symbols, by the mention in the New Testament of the ark of Noah, on which Justin himself comments elsewhere in the following way30. "In Isaiah it is said, by the Almighty to Jerusalem, I saved thee in the deluge of Noah," (He seems to be quoting, not in words but in sense in that. portion of the 54th chapter, "As I have sworn that the waters of Noah shall no more overflow the earth, so have I sworn to be wroth, with thee no more.") Justin proceeds :
"Now, this is the declaration of God, that the mystery of those who were saved by Christ was exhibited at the deluge. For the righteous Noah, with the rest at the deluge, being eight in number had a token of that eighth day, on which our Lord Christ showed Himself risen from the dead : the eighth day numerically, but virtually the first, from the beginning. For Christ, as He was the firstborn of every creature, so He became anew the beginning of a fresh race of men ; viz. that which was regenerated by Him, through Water and Faith ; and also, we may add, by wood, since wood expresses the mystery of the Cross. Even as Noah also was preserved by wood, floating upon the waters with those who belonged to him. When therefore the prophet says, I saved thee in Noah, he is speaking to that people, who, like Noah, are faithful to God, and have the same tokens from Him that Noah had."
Thus far St. Justin the Martyr, shewing how, in the history of the ark, there was a designed allusion to the Cross ; and by parity of reasoning justifying the like exposition, wherever it has seemed good to Almighty God to use the material of the Cross, namely wood, in the machinery, so to call it, of His miraculous providence, over those who, in their several ages, were to prepare, the way of His Christ.
(22.) For this may be observed of all the instances, enumerated above from Jewish or Patriarchal history, (and I remark it on account of those especially, who may be inclined to treat the subject lightly) that, one and all, they are discernible links in the Providential chain above mentioned, they all relate to critical moments, in the history of the chosen seed. Thus the supernatural increase of Jacobs flocks by means of the rods, was the first great step towards the increase of the chosen family into a nation and again, Judahs staff, the producing of which as his token, stayed the sentence of death against Tamar, was thereby instrumental in preserving the life of her infant, in whom it was Gods purpose to continue the chosen seed.
Perceiving as we do in these cases, something of Gods design in interfering, it surely becomes us to treat those traditions with reverence, which teach that in the manner of interfering He had respect continually to the end of the whole dispensation, i. e. to the Cross of His Son. And if we find other instances alleged, whose place in the divine conomy we are as yet unable to make out let us, not rashly treat them as trifling or fanciful. If we do not see I their force at first, if they appear to us quaint and overstrained, it is surely possible that this our ignorance may be our own fault, or our own trial; it is no absolute proof that the old interpreters are wrong.
(23.) In quitting for the present this subject, of the types of the Cross in the Old Testament, I would just remark further, that it furnishes a clear and instructive example of the manner in which the Fathers passed from one branch of mysticism into another from allegorizing the word of God, to spiritualizing His works. We have seen how they found, or thought they found a designed remembrancer and token of the Cross, wherever either its material or its form occurred in the Old Testament : and full as their minds evidently were of the Scriptures, it was but one step farther, to carry the same association with them, which way soever, they turned, in common life, or among natural objects. For example, so ordinary a sight as that of a flourishing tree by a river side could hardly fail to excite in a devout mind, thoroughly familiar with the Psalms, the remembrance of the description above quoted, with which that divine book, opens ; which description again, as we have seen, was in a primitive Christians mind inseparable from thoughts of the Cross and of the Font.
Here then, among Gods visible ordinary works, we obtain a standing type or symbol, and,bearing as it does the mark of selection by the Holy Ghost, may we not venture to call it a pledge,of His great invisible work in Holy Baptism ; the grace of which, we are thus taught, diffusing a kind of insensible virtue through the whole of our renewed nature, causes a man to grow in the likeness of Christ, to partake more and more of His Cross, and so to have surer and surer hope, that "look, whatsoever he doeth, it shall prosper" for ever.
By this and other like instances, a window being once opened for the lamps lighted within the Church to stream here and there upon the external world, it was rendered easy for a devout and contemplative mind to invent and pursue like trains of thought, in other instances, less expressly warranted in Scripture.
(24.) To take an instance from the subject which has now employed us : the early Christian writers repeatedly point out, in nature and in common life, what they regard as designed providential limitations of the doctrine of redemption, or some part of it, by association either with the form or with the material of the Cross. This they do, not only in flights of devotional poetry, or in what might be considered the indulgence of a meditative imagination, but in serious argument even with unbelievers. So in Justins well-known appeal, where he is asserting the dignity of the Cross31 he says :
"Providentially, it was so ordered, that in no instance, in the legend of any of those who were called sons of Jupiter, did the Evil Spirits enact, the death of the Cross. For it was not understood by them, all the prophecies of it being symbolically expressed. Now the Cross, as one of the Prophets (Habakkuk) foretold, is the most potent symbol of His power and sovereignty ; as appears even from things daily before our eyes.
"For consider all the affairs of the world : is there any, in the ordering and due combination whereof, this form does not occur? There is no crossing the sea, except this triumphant sign, which, in that instance, is formed by what they call the yard-arm, remain entire in the vessel: neither without it is there any plowing the land : either those who dig in the ground, nor those who work in handicrafts, can perform their task, but by tools having this form : nay and the human figure differs from animals without reason in nothing so much as in being erect, and in admitting extension of the hands each way :"
(which association, we may remark by the way, Holy Scripture itself might suggest, by the posture of Moses ensuring the defeat of Amalek).
But to proceed with Justin :
"The human countenance, bears this also as a mark of distinction from brutes, that from the forehead the line of the nose is drawn out with a sort of prominence ; so that where the breath of life is drawn, there the lines exhibit no other figure than that of the Cross: which the Prophet also hath thus expressed32 : The very breathing of our nostrils, is Christ the Lord. Moreover your ensigns also, [he is speaking to the Cæsars] express majesty by this form, wherewith you every where solemnize your processions ; in them exhibiting the signs of your sovereignty and power. It is so, though it be unconsciously done on your part. When your emperors die, their images in this form are dedicated by you; and in writing thereon, you style them gods."
"Thus, having urged you to the best of our power, both by reasoning, and by this appeal to a visible form, which is continually meeting your eyes, we consider ourselves to have done our part, and not to be responsible, should you remain unbelievers."
(25.) One would have supposed, that at least the piety and good meaning of such trains of thought might remain unquestioned, by all believers in the Cross Of Christ, whatever judgment might be formed on their logical accuracy. Yet, so it is, that on passages of this kind a charge has been grounded against the Fathers of directing the "faith of their readers to the efficacy of the figure of the Cross, rather than to the Atonement made thereon." A charge, which might perhaps be tenable, could it be proven that the general views and conduct of the same Fathers were such as to contradict their truly believing the Atonement. Just as, if there were any persons, either in ancient or in modern times, who observed no rules of self-denial, we might conclude at once that any trust they had, or taught others to have, in "Christ crucified," was in fact a trust in a certain form of words not in the virtue itself of that blessed sacrifice. What was the Cross, as employed by the Fathers but a "Verbum visibile, recalling to the minds of the baptized the very truth, which they are thus accused of slighting ; and to the heathen themselves conveying so much as this, that the Gospel was essentially a doctrine of the Cross, a doctrine of suffering in adherence to a crucified Redeemer? As an expressive symbol, therefore, or word, the Sign of the Cross was liable to the same abuse with words in general : the self-deceit of man might enable him sometimes to acquiesce in the sign without the thing signified ; and such a caution might be occasionally needed as Wesley is reported to have received from William Law : "Remember that a man may deceive himself as easily by the phrase, justification by faith, as by any other combination of syllables."
But supposing no such practical proof against them, may we not say, that the Fathers veneration for the Cross is primâ facie as much a proof of their receiving the doctrine of Christ crucified, as any form of words in which they could possibly have expressed themselves? And there was this plain and material reason, for their preferring the visible symbol to any mode of speech, in treatises for general reading; that they did not thereby convey more knowledge, than the rule of the Church allowed, to those who were without, while to every baptized believer they conveyed intimations, deep and solemn in proportion to the depth of his faith.
(26.) But not only with the figure of the Cross, but with its material also, the piety of those times associated recollections ; transferring, by an easy process, the mystical allusion, which the New Testament expressly sanctioned in the case of the ark ; not only, as before mentioned, to other scriptural facts, such as that of Elisha causing the iron to swim, but also to occasions of common life ; such, for example, as that mentioned by St. Cyprian, where he comforts certain imprisoned confessors, with thoughts, which to the world may seem merely enthusiastic and fanciful ; but let not its rashly apply such words to the reflections of holy men, suffering for the truths sake, on the circumstances of their trial ; circumstances which others might term casual, but which they feel to be providential. Thus, I say, St. Cyprian writes, to Nemesianus and other confessors, condemned to the mines33.
The circumstance of your having been first beaten with staves, and by severe pain of that kind begun to solemnize the first glorious stage of your confession, has nothing in it that we need abhor, or earnestly deprecate. For those limbs of yours, christened as they were, and having all their hope in the Wood of the Cross, shrank not for terror from the wood of the persecutors staves. The sacrament and token of his salvation was recognised by the servant of Christ. Redeemed before by wood to eternal life, by wood in another form he now finds himself borne onwards to his crown.
This passage may serve as a specimen of the manner, in which those first Christian moralists improved things, seemingly trivial, to spiritual associations. Those who merely make light of such allusions, know little of the real comfort they are calculated to give, to minds over depressed, perhaps, by sickness or privation. And may we not also say, they know but little, I fear we all know far less than we ought, of that serious and thankful frame of mind, which fears to accept such consolations, without owning a special Providence in them, and regarding them as real tokens of the greater blessing, with which they are associated?
So far we have traced the chief mystical expositions, relating to the Passion of our Lord, in the epistle of St. Barnabas ; and we seem to perceive that they are but so many specimens (so to call them) of as many groups of allusions, constantly occurring in the remains of the early Church.
(27.) There is yet one other aspect, in which the Wood or Tree of the Cross was contemplated by the church of the first ages, viz. as a bearing a designed reference to the fatal wood, or tree of knowledge in Paradise. This is put plainly and forcibly by St. Irenæus, (v. 17,) in a passage, which it may be well to quote at length, as containing perhaps the beat illustration that can be given of this whole subject. He is demonstrating the harmony of the Old and New Testaments as different parts of the one great scheme of salvation. And having first pointed to the light thrown by the Incarnation of the Word on the statement, that man was created after Gods image, he proceeds to argue on the Passion in the following way :
"Not only thus did the Lord manifest both the Father and Himself, but also by His very Passion. For doing away with that disobedience of mankind, which from the beginning had taken place through the wood, or tree of knowledge, He became obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross. The rebellion, I say, which the one tree had occasioned, He heals by that submission, which was wrought in the other. Whereas, had He been announcing another Father, He could not, by this sameness of subject, have indicated His coming to do away with the disobedience which had been committed against, our Creator. But inasmuch as the very same things, which occasioned our refusal to hear and obey Gods word, were the instruments whereby He introduced obedience and entire conformity to His word, He openly shows himself thereby to be that God, whom in the first Adam we offended, not performing His commandment; but in the second Adam we are reconciled to the same, having become obedient unto death. For to no other were we debtors, but to Him, whose commandment also we transgressed from the beginning."
And presently after :
"He hath blotted out the handwriting of our debt, and fixed it to His cross, that as by the tree we were made debtors to God, so by the tree we might receive remission of our debt. This hath been shown in symbol through many, but mare especially through the prophet Elisha."
Then after relating the miracle as above quoted by Justin Martyr, Irenæus proceeds :
"Thus by action the prophet showed, that the solid [which word seems to mean, "enduring, irresistible"] Word of God, which we through negligence had lost and could not find, we shall recover through the dispensation of the Tree or Wood. For that the axe is in some way a figure of the Word of God, St. John the Baptist shows, speaking of Him : Now also is the axe laid to the root of the trees. And Jeremiah in like manner says, The Word of the Lord is an axe cleaving a rock34. Him, then, before hidden from us, the dispensation of the Tree or Wood hath now manifested. For since by the tree we lost Him, by the tree again He hath become evident unto all ; shewing in Himself the length, and height, and depth, and breadth; and as one of our elders said, by the divine extension of His Hands, gathering the two peoples unto one God. For the Hands are two, because there are also two peoples, scattered to the ends of the earth ; but the Head in the midst is one, because there is one God, who is over all, and through all, and in us all."
(28.) In the other Apostolic Fathers, I do not know that more than one instance occurs of the mystical mode of interpretation ; that nothing is to be concluded from this omission, inasmuch as we seldom or never find either Hermas, Ignatius, or Polycarp, quoting the Old Testament at all. St. Hermas indeed hardly quotes the New, perhaps because the parabolical air of his treatise was better preserved by avoiding such definite allusions ; or because (which seems not improbable) the sacred Books, many of them, had not yet come into his hands. And of the other two venerable Saints, it may be observed in general, that in no part of their writings had they occasion to enter into debate, either with Jews, or with impugners of the Old Testament ; which two controversies generally called forth the mystical principle of interpretation in the subsequent age.
But in the epistle of St. Clement there is a well-known passage, which proves that by him, at least, that mode of exposition was neither unknown nor disapproved. Having related the history of the harlot Rahab, as an argument of Gods blessing on faith as shown by hospitality, he proceeds35 : "They went on to give her a sign, viz. that she should hang a scarlet thread from her house ; foretokening this, that by the blood of the Lord shall be redemption to all who believe and hope in God. Behold, my beloved : not only faith, but prophecy was in this woman." As if he had said, "It was not a simple case of an individual sinner of the Gentiles preserved by faith ; but God so highly favoured her, as to make her person and history a prophecy by action, of the salvation, which should be by the Cross."
Now this single instance, well considered, appears to bring the question of the mystical interpretation, as it were, to a point. Here is a writer (one is more than half afraid to speak in such a tone of one who came so very near the Apostles, but, if we must so speak of him, here is a writer) of the very highest human claims ; the chosen, ordained friend of St. Paul and St. Peter ; a person of the greatest practical good sense, as every part of his epistle shows ; full of deep piety, and reverence for the holy Scriptures of God ; of a flowing style, and abundant in resources both of imagery and of language, so that he was not under the temptation, which an ordinary writer might feel, of inserting such topics as happened to present themselves, whether satisfied with them himself or no : moreover he was evidently not carried away by a passion for allegorical interpretation as such, as is proved by the fact that this of Rahab is the solitary instance in which he employs it. Now, can we believe that such a person, so circumstanced, writing in the most solemn way on the most sacred of all subjects, and on an occasion which must have recalled most forcibly the memory of St. Paul, his father in the faith, not long since dead :can we believe that be could have delivered such an exposition, and applied to it the sacred name of Prophecy, publicly and authoritatively, speaking as he did for the Church, and not for himself only :had he not been sure that he was uttering the mind of the Holy Ghost ? I much fear that we do but betray our own comparative irreverence and indifference towards Gods holy and awful truth, when we are forward to suspect His favoured and accredited servants of such light extemporal dealing with His word. Surely the less violent supposition is, that St. Clement knew what he was saying, when he thus taught or rather reminded the Church (for he speaks not as conveying a new truth, but rather as exemplifying one already acknowledged) that the colour of scarlet, providentially employed as a token and means of deliverance, was an earnest of the Atoning Blood, to be sprinkled, like that of the Paschal Lamb, over the door-ways of those who should be heirs of salvation. Whereby he has also confirmed the analogous interpretation of those places, where scarlet is enjoined as the colour to be used in sprinkling and other legal purgations ; and has sanctioned the notion of the many subsequent writers, by whom that colour, whether found in Scripture or in nature, is constantly regarded as o ¢ i k e i o n (to speak rhetorically) to the Passion of our Lord : as much intended among colours to symbolize His Blood, as the shape of the Cross among forms, or its material, wood, among substances.
Whatever warrant he had for saying what he has said of the call of Rahab, the same, or like it, Tertullian (e. g.) may have had, for referring the text in Isaiah36,"Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow : though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool ;"to the different degrees of guilt incurred by the Jews, first as murderers of the prophets, afterwards as crucifiers of our Lord. "The word crimson," says he, "denotes the blood of the Prophets ; scarlet, that of the Lord, as excelling in lustre." Irenæus again, mixing up his commentary with thoughts yet more awful37 ; "Rahab the harlot, condemning herself as a heathen guilty of all kinds of sin, received and hid within her home" (he does not say two, but three spies or watchers) "the Three Explorers who were exploring the whole earth, the Father namely, and the Son, with the Holy Ghost." Which words are not to be so understood, as if Irenæus were affirming the Three Divine Persons to have then revealed themselves visibly and personally ; since it is a material part of the main argument of his work, to show that all visible manifestations of the Eternal Father, in the times of the Old Testament, were made through the only-begotten Son : but he means, apparently, that Rahab and those like her, receiving those who come in Gods Name, do in fact receive Him. He goes on with the history of Rahab :
"When the whole city where she dwelt had fallen into ruin at the sound of the seven trumpets, in that extremity Rahab the harlot was preserved with her whole house, by the faith implied in that sign of the scarlet thread : even as the Lord declared to those who would not receive His Advent, to the Pharisees, and such as make light of the sign of the scarlet robe, which was also a token of the Passover, the redemption and withdrawing of the people from Egypt,to the despisers thereof, I say, the Lord declared, The publicans and harlots take place of you in the Kingdom of Heaven."
And Justin, in like manner; adding a remark, that the messengers were sent by Him who bore the Name of Jesus38 :
"The symbol of the scarlet line denoted the token of Christs Blood, whereby men of all nations, formerly impure and unjust, are saved, receiving remission of sins, and sinning no more."
On this whole history we may remark, as on that of Jacob before, that it bears on a critical point in the progress of the great dispensation, and on the continuation of the sacred line in which Christ was to be born. Also, that each of the successive writers (and the chain might be continued much further) notices, not ambitiously but naturally, some circumstance unobserved by his predecessors ; so that the whole, taken together, forms an allegory much more complete and striking, than we find in either of the statements taken singly. Dare any man deny that these are great marks of Truth, even according to our modern measures, incompetent as they obviously are to these investigations?
(29.) We have thus endeavoured to trace one set of mystical allusions, those, namely, which are drawn from the circumstances of our Lords Passion, through the interpretations of the Old Testament, left us by the Apostolic Fathers ; and also to illustrate them from the Fathers of the next generation, so far as to give some idea of the kind of consent, in their mode of expounding, which is found among them all : an agreement not in minute particulars, as if they borrowed from one another, nor yet as if they were bound down in common by any Strict ritual, or hieroglyphical alphabet ; but rather in a way which cannot, perhaps, be better expressed, than in the words of St. Augustine39, where he lays down the principle which guided him in the investigation of historical types. "These secrets of Divine Scripture we trace out, as we may, one more or less aptly than another, but as becomes faithful men, holding thus much for certain ; that not without some kind of foreshadowing of future events, were these done and recorded ; and that to Christ only, and His Church the City of God, are they to be referred in every instance," so far as they are figurative.
On the true cause of this very general agreement, some considerations will be offered hereafter, which may at least have the effect of helping us all to think with seriousness of heart, on a subject, which scholars in general have, perhaps, been apt to treat over-lightly, not to say profanely ; so that, in speaking of it, a person insensibly falls into the apologetic tone. But the more we really come to know and think of it, the more deeply, perhaps, shall we feel, that even that tone is inexcusable presumption, compared with what would become us, in making mention of those who come nearest the Apostles, and had in greatest perfection the mind of Christ.
- In 1631
- Pref.. § 2. ed. 1714.
- Pref. p. xxxii
- Bishop Law, as quoted by Middleton, p. 57.
- Bp. Van Mildert, B. L. 239, ap. Horne, Introd. ii. 724; Macknight, oil St. Pauls Ep. iv. 439.
- Pref. p. 8, 9.
- Whitby, pp. 201-3
- Ibid. Pref. lxxvi-lxxviii.
- p. 57
- C. xvi.
- C. xii.
- Ep. S. Barnab. C. ix.
- For example, S. Clem. Alex. Strom. vi. 84 ; S. Ambr. de Fide, i. init. and § 121; S. Aug. Quæst. in Jud. 37; S. Hil. de Synod. 86.
- Compare Gen. 17:27; 14:14
- See Isai. 56:7; Jer. 7:11.
- Strom. vi. 11.
- In loc. S. Barn.
- De Doct. Christ. ii. 22.
- De Civ. Dei, xviii. 43.
- Heb. 9:15-20.
- S. Aug. ubi sup.
- Prolog. in Gen. t. ix. p. 10. Ed. Vallars. Venet. 1770.
- I Cor. 12:28.
- De Cor. Mil. c. 3.
- De S. S. Interp. p. 9.
- See S. Jerome on Ezek. ix.4. t. v. pars i. P. 95,6
- S. Barnab. Ep. c. xi.
- Opp. p. 312314.
- Free Inquiry, &c. p. 29.
- p. 367 c.
- 2 Apol. p. 90. B.
- Lamentations 4:20.
- Ep. 86. Ed. Fell, p.231.
- C. xxiii. 29.
- 1 Ep. ad Cor. c. xii.
- i. 18.
- iv. 37.
- Dial. cum Tryph. p. 338. D.; Ed. Paris 1636.
- De Civ. Dei, xvi. 2.
- See Warburton, Int. to Julian, Works, iv. 340, 341. Ed. 1788.
- In Joan. t. x. c. 2.
- Hom. 2. in Gen. § 3.t.ii. 63. A. Ed. Bened. 1733.
- Comm. In Matt. xiv. § 11 t.iii. 629. B, C, E.
- In Matt. xv. § 31 t.iii. 699. B.
- Ep. 137. § 18, t. ii. p. 310.
- III. 5.
- Hexaëm. ix.
- Hooker, E. P. v. 50. 3.
- t. iii. pars 1. p. 90; Ed. Bened. 1702
- Whitby, Pref. in Diss. de Interp. S. S. p. lviii.
- De Genes ad lit. viii. 4.
- Ibid. 5.
- De Princip. iv. 6. t. i. 161.
- § xi. t. i. 168.
- § i. t. ii, p. 205.
- In Matt. Hom. xiv. § 12, t. iii. p. 630. D.
- Strom. vi. c. xv. § 132.
- Apol. pro Orig. p. 36; D. ad calc. Orig. Ed. Bened. t. iv.
- In Matt. xii. 30. ; tom. Iii. 549. A.
- In Gen. Hom. 2. t. ii. p. 5963.
- Ibid. 7, § 2 ; t. ii. p. 78. C, D.
- Ibid. 11, § 2 ; t. ii. p. 90. C.
- Ibid. 8. 10. t. ii. p. 83.
- Ibid. § 9.
- Ibid. 10. 4. t. 11. p. 88.
- On c. 43, 13. t. ii. p. 48. E.
- In Jesu Nave Hom. viii. 7. t. ii. p. 417. B, C.
- Ibid. § 6.
- In Gen. Hom. v. 3. t. ii. p. 74. F.
- In Joan. Comm. x. 2. t. iv. 162. B.
- Ibid. § 3, 4
- In Matt. Comm. Series, § 77. T. iii. p. 892, 3.
- In Exod. I. § 5. t. iii. p. 131. E.
- Comm. in Matt. tom. 16. § 12. t. iii. 732.
- Pref. in t. ii. p. xvil.
- Comm. in Matt. t. xv. 2. tom. iii. 653.
- In Gen. Hom. vi. i. t. ii. p. 76, D.
- In Gen. Hom. x. 2. t. ii. p. 87. F.
- In Exod. Hom. ii. 1. t. ii, p. 133. E.
- Hom. in Gen. vii. 5. t. ii. 80. B.
- Vid. Harduin. Concil. t. ii. p. 286288.
- P. xxiii.
- Hexaëm. Hom. ix. § i.
- In Gen. Hom. xiii. t. i. p. 80.
- Epiph. Epist. ad Joan. Ierosolym. ap Hieron. t. i. 247, &c.; Ed. Vallars. 1766; Hieron. contra Joan. Ierosol. § 7 ; t. ii. 413.
- Hom. 13, in Gen. t. i. p. 80, lin. 29, Ed. Savile.
- t. i. 652, 16.
- In Esai. lib. i. 4 ; t. i. p. 113.
- T. i. p. 2. C. ed. Aubert. Paris. 1638.
- Contra Celsum, iv. 48, 43, 45.
- Ibid. § 44; p. 537, B
- Ibid. § 48; t. i. p. 540
- De Civ. Dei, viii. 7.
- Ibid. cap. 10
- Contra Celsum. Iii. 75.
- Strom. i. 99 ; vi. 44.
- Ibid. i. 38 ; vi. 45.
- Ibid. i. 73.
- Ibid. vii. 87.
- Contr. Faust. Lib. xxii. 26.
- Ibid. xxii. 27.
- Ibid. xxii. 73
- Quæst. in Jud. xlix. 4. t. iii. p. i. 456. D.
- Contr. Faust. xxii. 74.
- Ibid. § 79.
- In I Reg. qu. 34. t. i. 379. Ed. Schulze
- Comm. in Hos. t. iii. 13. C.
- Contr. Faust. xxii. 23.
- Lib. iv. 29. (1 Cor)
- de Mendacio 32. t. vii. p.341.E.
- Contr. Faust. xxii. 24.
- Lib. iv. § 37, p. 333.lin. 32. Ed. Grabe.
- Ibid. iv. 37, p. 336. 26.
- Contr. Cels. iv. 43. t. i. p. 537. C.
- Apol. p. 40. D. t. I ; Paris, 1609.
- Contr. Mendac. ad. Consent. c. 24, t. vi. 337 D
- De Jacob et vita beata, II. 6; t. i. 546
- In Gen. Hom. 43 ; t. i. 415. 7. Ed. Savil.
- De Jacob et vita beata, II. 9; t. i. 546
- Ap. Galland. Bibl. Patr. t. ii. 485. B.
- Serm. iv. § 16 ; t. v. 13. D.
- Ibid. § 152, 23
- Ibid. § 21.
- Ibid. § 24.
- Contr. Faust. xxii. c. 59.
- Lib. iv. c. 38.
- e. g.St. John Chrysostom in Gen. Hom. 29, t. i. 226. Ed. Savil
Whitby, p. 8 ; 345 ; & Pref. p. ix.
"Ride on triumphantly : behold we lay
Our lusts and proud wills in Thy way.
Hosanna ! welcome to our hearts. Lord here
Thou hast a Temple too, and full as dear
As Sion, and as full of sin.
Nothing but thieves and robbers dwell therein
Enter, and chase them forth, and cleanse the floor," etc.
t íz p o q w n o m a x e n w d
e z t o p a n e t h t u m w z ,
m h t i z o n t i n o u k o r v m e n ,
p r o n o i a s i t o u p e p r w m e n o u
g l v s s a n e n t u c a n e m w n ; k . t . l .
when people cross themselves
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