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."