Tracts for the Times
ON THE MYSTICISM ATTRIBUTED TO THE FATHERS OF THE CHURCH
by John Keble
iv.--Mysticism as applied to the Moral Difficulties of Scripture.
It has been endeavoured in the former sections, first, to shew distinctly what is meant, when the Fathers are charged with Mysticism, and to point out by example the need of extreme caution and reverence, whenever we approach that subject. Secondly, granting the fact that they are, generally speaking Mystics, at least in the interpretation of Scripture, (for to that in its present stage the inquiry is limited) a reason was however adduced for believing that they were not so at random, nor in mere blind obedience to the literary fashion of the day. The reason is this, that we find them, with few and rare exceptions, careful to limit their mystical expositions, so as not to destroy the historical and literal meaning. The exceptions, chiefly drawn from the Alexandrian school, were shortly considered, and appeared in themselves less formidable than they are sometimes represented : it appeared moreover, that whatever their amount, they so far tend to strengthen our argument, as they occasioned an anxious disavowal of the mere allegory, on the part of St. Basil, St. Augustine, and others, who had the best claim to be regarded as representing the whole Church. Their verdict is correctly reported in the following passages from Cyril of Alexandria88.
"In the inspired writings those who shrink from the literal and historical meaning as unsound, are chargeable in effect with something very like shrinking from the only process, can enable them to understand the things therein set down. For the investigation of them in the mystical way is indeed noble, and profitable; it tends to enlighten, throughly the eye of the mind, and greatly to advance us in good understanding : nevertheless, as often as any historical fact is introduced to us by the Scriptures, then surely, if ever, it becomes us to trace out the profitable use of the history, that the divine Scripture may do its work, saving and helping us in all ways."
This was in agreement with the rule, which he had laid down for himself in the beginning of his commentary on the Pentateuch89.
"Our exposition will be useful, if we first consider the facts, as they really took place, and make part of history; and having as we may completed that view, if we then new-mould our statement, passing from the type and shadow to the clear account of the inward signification; our discourse having all the way a bearing on the Mystery of Christ, and tending to Him as its limit; since it is an unquestioned truth, that Christ is the end of the Law and the Prophets."
Such had been the line of interpretation, which, the Fathers of the first age, by a kind of sacred instinct, adopted, from the beginning: and in no other did those of the fourth and fifth ages acquiesce, after full examination, and abundant opportunity of judging how far it was likely to be abused.
(2.) We have now to consider this mystical method in its application to one class of texts in particular; those portions, namely, of the Old Testament history which record actions of questionable morality on the part of Gods favoured servants. So it is, that in modern times, even among those who appear truly, to reverence the Bible, there is commonly adopted, in regard of these startling passages, a tone of explanation and remark, very different from that which prevailed in the early ages of the Church. It seems desirable, for many reasons, to ascertain the amount of that difference, and how it may be best accounted for. We may find perhaps that the patristical mode of interpretation, rightly understood, interferes as little with moral as it before was found to interfere with historical truth ; and the whole discussion may tend to convince us, that on this, as on most theological subjects, we have much more to learn from the Fathers, than to apologize for in them.
(3.) That the Fathers, deeply as they were versed in every part of the inspired writings, were fully aware of this kind of Scripture difficulty, one might be certain beforehand, on considering that it is a difficulty which occurs to every person, even to children, perusing the Old Testament with an ordinary degree of attention. Nor do we find commonly in their writings any desire to evade the subject, or to draw off attention from it. There were controversies indeed in the four first ages, which would have forced it continually on their thoughts as polemical writers ; such as that with the Marcionites first, and afterwards with the Manichĉans, who used the startling parts of the sacred history, as proofs that the Old Testament came from an evil, or at least from an imperfect, Being : or again, that which they had constantly to maintain with the Pagan Philosophers, who, as appears from Celsus and Julian, were not slow to employ this topic against Christians and Jews alike : but the remarkable thing is, that the same narrations are produced, and discussed without reserve, in their practical and popular writings also, their pastoral letters to individuals, and their homilies ad populum. There seems no desire on their part to withdraw these, things from common observation, such as we now find not unfrequently, even among those who on other grounds would encourage the freest discussion and circulation of the Scriptures. Their reserve, their secret discipline, so perplexing to many in our days, did not extend to these things.
(4.) Neither do we find that even those, who took tile greatest liberties in allegorizing, who came nearest in some instances to the denial of the letter,not even that such as Origen,thought themselves warranted in getting rid of the moral difficulty, arising from the places in question, by resorting to the mere allegory. They did so, or appeared much inclined to do so, where the literal statement seemed physically or historically impossible : occasionally also where it seemed very trifling or frivolous ; but it is not so easy to meet with a passage, where the same solution is applied to any narrative, merely on the ground of its apparent immorality; which yet, with our modern notions, would seem to be the most tempting ground of all.
This remark is made with all the hesitation, which becomes one who ventures on a sweeping statement after a very limited induction. But should it be found on the whole correct, it is surely a very considerable circumstance, and may help to convince us that these early theologians knew well what they were about, and did not use their solutions at random, just as difficulties happened to press, or ingenious answers came to hand. Celsus, as it appears from Origen90, charged the apologists of the Bible with this very artifice; "that the more plausible among them,
being ashamed of certain portions of their sacred books, refuge in the allegorical meaning :" and among other instances from the Book of Genesis he alleged the disputes of and Esau, the conduct of Rebecca, the histories of Lot and of Jacobs family. Origens answer in effect comes to this91 : he disavows all intention of denying the fact in such histories as mentioned. "In many instances," says he, "the word [of God], hath made use of real transactions, and recorded them so as to exhibit things greater, covertly indicated, such as are [among others] the marriages and various connections of the righteous men [of old]." Farther on he contrasts the patriarchal narrative with the foul and revolting fictions of the Greek which, as he observes, were indeed full of shamefulness, taken in their first acceptation, relating as they did to very gods and the sons of their gods ; and having enforced by the virtual confession of those Greek philosophers, such as Chrysippus, who had laboured to make out the symbolical purport of their fables, he proceeds as follows :
"Because of these thingsbecause of such fables as these and others innumerable, we for our part are unwilling to go so far as even in name to call the Supreme God (e.g.) Jupiter ; or the Sun, Apollo ; or the Moon, Diana. But exercising pure religion towards the Creator, and concerning His works, which are very good, using none but good and auspicious words, not even by a name do we pollute the things of God : accepting what Plato says in the Philĉbus : so great, says he, is the dread which I feel concerning the names of the gods. We also, of a truth, are full of dread concerning the Name of our God and His good creatures, to that degree, that never could we admit, even under pretence of symbolical language, any tale or fable which tends to the corruption of the young92."
The argument of this passage may seem to require explanation. It may be briefly stated thus. "The fact is well known that believers in the Bible decline even the metaphoric use of the names of the heathen gods ; so great is their abhorrence of the impious immoral stories with which those names are associated; judge you then whether they are likely, under any pretence of allegory, to admit, as vehicles of their own doctrines, stories really base and immoral."
From all this it is sufficiently manifest, that the line of defence taken by Origen, and a fortiori by those who were less prone to allegory, would be, to vindicate on their own grounds the moral tendencies of the several statements objected to, assuming their historical truth. How far such his vindications were or were not independent of the allegorical meaning, which he also asserted, and for which he argues at large in this very passage, is another question, to be considered hereafter in its place.
(5.) Now there is a strong presumption, at first setting out, against the supposition that the Fathers dealt lightly with this class of Scripture difficulties, that they trifled with them or treated them in a way to disturb mens notions of morality. For it is a certain fact, that the early Christian moralists, whether nominally attached to any particular school or no, were none of them in any sense Epicureans nor utilitarians. They all held expressly or by instinct, a moral sense in the heart of man and its correlative, a real difference of right and wrong in human conduct, independent of all results.
It was partly, on this ground that they preferred to all others the schools of Pythagoras and Plato, a preference which is fully stated and accounted for at large by St. Augustin, in his eighth Book on the City of God. A few passages may be given, a tending to show what line Christian philosophers (for in their name generally St. Augustin is speaking, and not of his own private opinions) would be likely to pursue on delicate points of casuistry.
With regard then to the moral sense, he exclaims93 :
"Far be it from us to think of comparing the Platonists with those, who make the bodily senses the standard of truth, and pronounce them, faithless and deceitful as they are, the rule and measure of all proportions; as do the Epicureans and all of the like source : as the very stoics also themselves, who in their fond affection for Dialectic, as they term it, i.e. for the art of ingenious argumentation, have imagined that even it might be best derived, ultimately from the bodily senses; affirming that from no other source does the mind conceive the notions, which they call primary (ideas i.e. of certain things which their theory goes on to define particularly), and from which is deduced and framed the whole process of learning and of teaching But the Platonists (deservedly therefore preferred by us) distinguish what the mind beholds from what strikes on the bodily senses; neither denying to the senses what they are capable of, nor assigning to them more than they will bear. But the light of the mind, whereby all things are to be learned, they affirmed to be no other than the God by whom all things were made."
A little further on, he writes as follows : (The passage is here quoted, not so much for the astonishing depths which it discloses of what may be called Christian Philosophy, as because the author states himself to be speaking not his own private sentiments, but the feeling avowed or instinctive, of the whole Church94.)
"So far as the Platonists agree with us , concerning one God, the Author of this universe, who is not only above all bodies, Himself incorporeal, but also above all souls, Himself incorruptible, our Source, our Light, our Goodso far we prefer them to all others. What if any Christian, ignorant of their literature, use not their terms in disputation, (how should he, since he had never learned them?) what if he neither call that branch Physics, which treats of inquiry into things natural ; nor that Logic, which analyses the process whereby truth may be discerned : nor that Ethics which treats of conduct,of the chief good to be sought, and the chief evil to be avoided? he knows nevertheless that all three from the one true and most bountiful God ; both our nature, whereby we are formed according to His image ; and the doctrine, whereby we may know both Him and ourselves ; and the grace, whereby, cleaving to Him, we may be perfectly blessed. Behold here the cause of the preference we give to the Platonists : that while other philosophers have worn out their toil and their talents searching for the cause of things, the rules of learning and of life ; these alone acknowledging God, have found the cause of the world as it is, the light of all truth that may be attained, the fountain of all bliss that may be tasted. Be these philosophers then Platonists, or whoever else of whatever nation, who think thus of God, they think with us."
In Origen we have repeated disavowals of the principles of the other sects, and repeated acknowledgements of the remarkable coincidence between the principles of Platos morality, and those which the Gospel divinely sanctions. Of the former class, the following is a specimen95 :
The Christians are likened by Celsus to one, who professing to cure bodily sickness, should withdraw men from skilful physicians, for fear of having their ignorance detected. But who, I ask, are these physicians from whom we thus withdraw the simple? Suppose it, for example, to be the philosophy of Epicurus, and those who belong to his school, what do we that is not most reasonable, liberating men from that evil disease, the result of these favourite physicians of Celsus : I mean the denial of Providence, and recommendation of pleasure as the chief good? Or what again, if we draw off our disciples from those other physician-philosophers who are called Peripatetics ; denying as they do all providence over mankind, all relation between God and man? what is this but an exercise in piety on our part, and a real mental cure to those whom we influence? Grant again, that there are others, whom we separate from the physicians of the Stoical class, the maintainers of a corruptible God of a bodily or perishable substance : in this case too, can any one deny that we shall be delivering those who will believe us from many evils, and introducing them to the doctrine of true piety, the doctrine of resignation to the Creator of the world ?
To this rejection of all other theories, he elsewhere adds express approbation of Platos, of which perhaps no instance can be adduced more remarkable than this:
"Let those who are able to understand receive the instruction of ancient and wise men ; of Plato especially, the son of Ariston ; let us hear what he says in a certain letter concerning the chief good : let us attend to him, affirming, the first and chiefest good can in nowise be uttered in words, but is first generated by long habit, and then on a sudden, as though by fire, starting into a blaze, is kindled like a light in the soul. Which words we also hearing, assent unto them as excellently spoken : for it was God Himself who revealed to them those things, and whatsoever else has been rightly taught by them."
(7.) To the same purpose may be alleged those passages in Clement of Alexandria, peculiarly startling to those whose views are framed upon the phraseology of modern theologians, wherein be speaks of the old Pagans being in a certain sense justified by philosophy96 ; of its being necessary to them for righteousness before the coining of our Lord ; of its constituting one out of many ways or gates of righteousness97, whereby men, according to Gods manifold goodness, might be and were variously led towards the royal way and gate. These and similar high expressions relate especially to the Platonic morals : although it is true that in his general commendations of philosophy he wished to be understood as adopting an eclectic process : he says :
"I mean not the Stoical or the Platonic alone, nor yet that of Epicurus, nor of Aristotle ; but whatsoever sayings may be found in each of those sects, rightly inculcating righteousness with religious consideration, those taken all together by way of selection I term philosophy98."
This eclecticism may very well stand with an exclusive preference of Platos doctrine, as to the unchangeable nature of moral good arising out of the unchangeable attributes of God ; a doctrine with which Clement every where indicates his concurrence : e. g. where he calls Justice natural, and especially in that remarkable place which conveys his exposition of the critical word Justification99 ;
"You have been justified, says the Apostle, in the name of the Lord ; you have been made by Him, so to speak, righteous, as He is righteous ; and in the greatest possible measure, according to your capacity, you have been blended and united with the Holy Spirit of God."
This sentence clearly evinces, that when be spoke of philosophy justifying the heathen, he was far from any thought of its meriting for them, in the strict sense of the word, forgiveness of sins : he was speaking of inherent goodness, and that, he affirmed, philosophy gave them, so far as they may have really practised it, by the secret aid of Gods good Spirit, and so far as they may have become, accordingly, conformed to Gods image ; an idea which evidently applies to the Platonist alone, among heathen schools of morality.
Such is, what has sometimes been called in scorn, the Platonism of the early Church ; the allegation implied in that name being about as correct, as if one should say, the suns light was borrowed from the reflection of the moon in the water. The passages have been adduced, not to prove the fact, for that is allowed on all hands ; but as putting strongly before the mind the sort of view, which the ecclesiastical writers were likely to take of those narratives of Holy Writ, which we may call, in one sense, painfully perplexing. We see that they could not consistently explain. them by any view, however enlarged, of expediency, a greater good resulting in the end ; they must either leave the several difficulties as they found them, or make them out in some way positively consistent with Gods eternal law.
(8.) We are far, however, from being left to antecedent probabilities on this head. St. Augustin, in his treatise against Faustus the Manichĉan, has left us an elaborate statement of the principle on which, as he conceived, objections of the kind now in question are to be met, accompanied with many exemplifications. The Manichĉans, as, is well-known, affirmed the Old Testament to be the work of the Evil Principle ; and one of their main arguments was grounded on the distressing parts of the Old Testament history. Indeed, the similarity is wonderful between the blasphemies of Faustus as they are recited by St. Augustin, and those of many modern unbelievers : whether the replies of St. Augustin agree as well with those most in favour among modern vindicators of Scripture is another question ; of which more will be said presently.
He addresses himself to the inquiry with all the religious care, which might be expected from his deep reverence and affection for the Bible : stating himself, in the outset, to have in view the case, not so much of the Manichaeans,whose theology, as well as their moral conduct, proved that they could not adduce such objections in earnest,as of others, who, without any vain teaching of theirs, found in themselves disturbing thoughts, on comparing the life of Prophets in the Old Testament with the life of the Apostles in the New. He says100 :
"That we may not proceed rashly in our moral judgment of these matters, we shall do well first to consider, what is sin : then to look into the deeds of the Saints registered in the divine books, that if any instances we find even them to have sinned, we may ascertain, as diligently as we can, for what good end their sins also were set down, and committed to memory. Next, in whatsoever cases we find what appears sin to the foolish or ill-disposed, not being such, yet not having in it any obvious example of goodness : we shall have to consider for what cause these things found a place in those Scriptures, which our faith tells us were written for our [souls] health, to control us in this life, and obtain for us that which is to come. Lastly, whatsoever among the deeds of the Saints shine forth as lessons of righteousness, no man, even among the simple and ignorant, doubts the propriety of recording these. Of the two classes, then, there may be a question ; first, those which may seem to be recorded idly, not having any goodness found in them, not being sins ; secondly, those, the relation of which, may appear even pernicious, their sinfulness being undeniable, and they not unlikely to be drawn into precedent. In which latter kind again we may observe a further distinction. For some of these, actions are uncensured in the Scripture itself, and may, therefore, by some be imagined no sin at all; others are indeed reproved in the Bible, yet may be committed with an hope of easy pardon, being such as are found even in those holy men."
(9.) A fairer or fuller statement of the case could hardly be given in the same number of words. Observe now how absolutely he lays down the doctrine of immutable morality, as the whereby to try the conduct of the Saints, no less than the ordinary conduct of ordinary men. He proceeds101 :
"Sin is something done, said, or desired contrary to the eternal law. By the eternal law I mean the Divine reason or Will of God, commanding the preservation, forbidding the disturbance, of the natural order of things."
Presently after he applies this standard to the cases enumerated by Faustus, such as the polygamy of Abraham and Jacob ; Abrahams conduct when with Sarah in Egypt; the histories of Lot, Judah, David, and others ; the sanguinary wars and executions of Moses. And how uncompromising his casuistry was, we may see in the treatise De Mendacio : where he denies the lawfulness of any kind of lie, even for the saving of a mans life or soul, and maintains that all the cases alledged from the Old Testament in excuse or commendation of those who take such liberties, either had not the nature of lies, or are proposed as warnings, not as examples to mankind.
Such being in general the strictness of the Fathers morality, it is nevertheless undeniable, that they treat the passages in questionSt. Augustin himself, the asserter of a rule so inflexible treats themin a tone at which modern ears are apt to be startled : positively and unreservedly praising some things, which the men of this age either boldly censure, or condescendingly try to excuse, or at best shrink from discussing, as they would from the touch of a hot iron : and using much doubt and reserve in their censure of others, which to us are apt to seem clear and unquestionable cases of gross immorality.
(10.) Now with regard to the former classthe cases where the approbation of the Fathers is more positive than we should venture on,it perhaps will be found that they generally spoke from a strong impression (which might or might not be well-grounded in the particular case) that the person was acting by express command, or secret but sure inspiration, of Almighty God. The most signal instance of the kind is Abrahams sacrifice of his son : the command for which is too plainly set down in the Old Testament, and the praise of it in the New too marked and emphatical, to admit of its being, called in question by any believer ; but it is not always felt how far the principle of it extendsthat to it, as to the head of a class, may be referred very many of the passages which startle men, by representing Gods favoured servants as acting with apparent cruelty and harshness. The Fathers deeply felt this : they felt that where God had plainly spoken, the justifications and arguments of men were out of Place : nor did they doubt His having means to make His own voice so clear to His servants, that they need not fear its coming from any Spirit but His. And therefore St.Augustin, defending Gods people against the charge of wronging the Egyptians, felt that be had said enough for them, if he brought them under the same category with Abraham : i. e. if he showed that they as well as Abraham had an express command from God. And this the very Manichĉans must allow; for even Faustus, in general so unsparing, had dared not insert the sacrifice of Isaac in his charges against the Patriarchs ; probably because it would have been too offensive, so clear was the verdict of exceeding praise bestowed on that act in the New Testament. St. Augustin's reasoning is so worded102 :
"Some acts there are which the Eternal Lord has set before men as in a kind of middle station, so that, our taking them on ourselves would be justly blamed for presumption, but in fulfilling them, commanded, we earn the praise of obedience. So much difference does it make in the natural place and station of things not only who is acting, and what is done, but also under whose authority. Abraham, had he sacrificed his son of his own accord, what would he have shown himself, but fearfully profane and detestable? What, when he did so at Gods bidding, but full of all faith and devotion?"
(Elsewhere103, in comparing Abrahams act with Jephthas, he had made this the leading difference : that the one, being bidden, offered his son ; the other did what was forbidden by the law of Moses, and not enjoined on him by any special command.) .
"Wherefore, if in the slaughter of a son the voluntary act would be accursed, but the dutiful obeying Gods voice not only unblameable but glorious; why, O Faustus, blamest thou Moses, for having spoiled the Egyptians? If thine anger is moved by the apparent disonesty, supposing the act human, let thy fear be also moved by the Divine authority of Him who enjoined it. Or, art thou prepared to blame God Himself for willing such things to be done? Then get thee behind me, Satan, for thou savourest not the things which be of God, but those which be of men."
He proceeds to apply the same principle to the wars of Moses and Joshua, and the destruction of the Canaanites104
"The wars wrought by Moses we need not admire or shudder at, for in them he followed the Divine command it was not cruelty, but obedience .105 Why then rush we into daring reproaches, I would I could say, of men only, and not of God? What, if the ministers and dispensers of the Old Testament, who were also harbingers of the New, did their office by slaying sinners ; while those ministers of the New, being also expositors of the Old, did theirs by dying under the hands of sinners ? Yet both aid their office to Godto Him who teaches that at divers but convenient seasons, from Him temporal goods must be sought, and for Him they are to be despised : by Him temporal chastisements are enjoined, and for Him they ought to be endured."
So Theodoret, speaking of the slaughter of Agag by Samuel106 : "He slew him as Phinehas did Zimri : for whatever God commands is religious." And Cyril, with no less simplicity and piety107:
"We ought unhesitatingly, attributing rectitude to the verdict pronounced in Heaven, to keep ourselves from all thoughts of cavil, and hasten to accomplish what is bidden, though it be something not very agreeable to our own understandings. E. g. Saul spared Agag : .whereby he offends God, and that greatly ; for he dealt gently with him who was appointed to die ; his conduct being all one as if be bad proclaimed in so many words, that God had passed an unjust sentence on Agag.
(11.) To many persons, reading their Bibles with unprejudiced and simple minds, it may seem as if on this point we were multiplying unnecessary quotations. "Obey my voice," is to them, and they feel that it must ever have been to Gods Saints, all in all, without further inquiry. But it seemed desirable to give full expression to the patristical view of cases like that of Abrahams sacrifice, for the sake of comparing it with a notion which seems to find favour with many in our days. Antiquity was content, when once it discerned a plain injunction from above : but the restless ingenuity of this age will not permit us heartily to acquiesce in the praises even of such as Abraham, except under cover of a certain theory of accommodation. Human sacrifices, we are told, and particularly the sacrifice of children by their parents, were notoriously practised by the nations of Canaan : God had not yet declared His abhorrence of such sacrifices : they were practised in that time and country as the most solemn rite of religion : therefore, whatever Abrahams feelings might be, his conscience was not startled at the command to offer his sonit was not yet an enlightened conscienceit partook of the barbarity of his time and country : allow for that, and Christians may contemplate the sacrifice of Isaac with edification, but without such allowance it will be a stumbling-block.
In like manner, the destruction of the Canaanites, the slaughter of the Midianitish women by Moses, of the Amalekites and Agag by Saul and Samuel, were not blameable in those times, because in those times "the laws of war, if so they may be called, were so thoroughly barbarous, that no amount of slaughter committed against enemies was likely to shock the feelings of any one." Samuel, in short, was a half-civilized person, and therefore might be justified in putting Agag to death, in obedience to the plain command of God ; but "to men in an advanced state of moral knowledge and feeling, the command to perpetrate such general slaughter would be so revolting, that they could not and ought not to think that God could possibly be the author of it."
(12.) Now, not to dwell here, on the fact, that the iniquity of the Amorites, in, Abrahams time, was declared to be not yet full, and that the book of Deuteronomy seems to speak of their burning their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods, as the crowning act of that iniquity; considerations which would seem to throw no small doubt on the statement that human sacrifices were usual in Canaan in Abrahams time; neither would that doubt at once be removed by the mention of such sacrifices as practised by the Moabites many generations after :not to insist on the remonstrance of Elisha, "Wouldest thou destroy those whom thou hast made captive by thy sword and by thy bow?" as an indication that the then received "laws of war" were not in all cases altogether so barbarous as the above argument requires :omitting for the present objections of the historical sort, and only just noticing the obvious remark, that the higher and gentler a persons general tone of moral feeling, the less likely, one should think, would he be to be hurt and corrupted by a command to execute vengeance in some isolated case, however unsparingly ;on granting which, the whole speculation vanishes :passing over these and other considerations, the one thing now to be observed is, the striking contrast between the tone and manner of St. Augustin, and of the modern apology for the Bible : how completely the one mounts above, the other defers to, the natural cravings of a refined intellect after full satisfaction and explanation ; how fearlessly the one acquiesces in Gods will, while the other would check us in such acquiescence, by philosophical calculations, of the result of such and such conduct on the tempers and character of the agent ; how the one in short walks entirely by faith, the other requires more or less of intellectual sight. On that one distinction we might perhaps reasonably join issue, which of the two schools may be more safely followed, as a guide through the difficulties of Scripture.
It will be said, perhaps, that the Fathers themselves have given their sanction to this principle of moral accommodation, pleading as they do for some of the Old Testament characters, the comparative imperfection of the light and strength which they enjoyed. But if we mark it well, we shall find this material difference between their accommodation, (if it may be so called,) and that which has been considered above,that they never apply it to actions positively commanded or approved of God. It belongs either to characters, such as Rahab and the midwives of Egypt, who were on the whole praised and accepted, in spite of some immorality in the means they employed ; which immorality however was less in them than it would have been in us, on account of the greater imperfection of their knowledge :or else it appertains to enactments or permissions, having in them more or less of a ritual and positiveone might almost say, of a sacramentalnature ; "the custom of that time, when the promise was veiled, as distinguishable from the custom of this time, when the promise is revealed," So writes St. Augustin108, with a view especially to the domestic history of the Patriarchs. And perhaps ,we might refer to this head the whole subject of the law of marriage, both before and after the time of Moses, as compared with that which had existed in Paradise, and which our Saviour renewed in the Christian Church.
Of this latter class St. Irenĉus is speaking, where, having quoted St. Pauls permissive sentences in I Cor. vii he infers109 :
"If even in the New Testament we find the Apostles allowing some precepts on a principle of condescension, because of the incontinence of certain persons, lest such, becoming obdurate and altogether despairing of their salvation, fall entirely away from God ; it is no wonder, should the same God in the Old Testament also have willed something of the kind, alluring His people for their good by the aforesaid observances, whereby they might at least learn to keep the Ten Commandments, and feel them such a check as should prevent their turning to idolatry, and becoming apostates from God ; nay, and whereby they might learn to love Him with their whole heart."
Thus Irenĉus, to explain how the Mosaical permission of divorce might harmonize with the purer Evangelical Law, coming in its season. It was matter of permission, as our Lord Himself hinted to the Pharisees when they pressed Him with it. For they having asked, did Moses command divorce?" , He in His reply corrected the expression ; "Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts suffered" (not enjoined) "you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so."
(14.) For an illustration of the other kind of moral accommodation we may refer to St. Augustin, de Mendacio110.
"Whereas it is written, that God dealt bountifully with the Hebrew midwives, and with Rahab, the harlot of Jericho ; that was not because of the falsehoods they uttered, but because of the kindness they showed to the people of God. It was not then their deceit which received a reward, but their good and dutiful affection. . . . For as it would not appear strange nor unreasonable, should God in consideration of their later good works be willing to forgive certain evil works formerly committed by them ; so neither is it any thing wonderful, if God ; at one time and in one transaction beholding both,a deed of mercy and one of deceit,did not only reward the one as good, but also with a view to that goodness did forgive the other which was evil... We may understand then that to those women, to the one in Egypt, to the other in Jericho, was rendered according to their humanity and mercy a reward, of this world indeed, but such as might also in prophetic shadow represent, unknown to themselves, something eternal. But whether at any time it be right to tell a lie, even for the sake of saving a man ; this being a question, the solution of which even the most learned find a weary task, was of course far beyond the compass of ordinary women, dwelling where they did, and with the tone of morals they were used to. Accordingly, this ignorance of theirs, as also their equal blindness in many other things, things which are reserved to be known by the children not of this world but of the next ; this ignorance, I say, the long suffering of God endured. . . . As to Rahab, when she did that deed,good and laudable, considering her state of life,she was not yet such as that one should require of her, Let your conversation be, Yea, yea, Nay, nay. But we, in our inquiries whether any kind of lie can ever suit a good man, have an eye to the case not of an Egyptian, not of one appertaining to Jericho or Babylon, nor of one who is still a denizen of the earthly Jerusalem, which is in bondage with her children ; but of a citizen of that city which is above, our mother eternal in the heavens,"
(15.) Hitherto those cases only have been considered, in which the approbation of Holy Writ is express ; let us now proceed to those which may seem to be left doubtful, being simply recorded with no clear precept or commendation. And here it will be obvious to the most cursory examiner, that amidst great individual diversity, the Fathers, as a body, in discussing such cases, almost always lean to the favourable side. They do so in a degree, which to persons with mere modern associations may often appear extravagant, sometimes even shocking. In this they might be suspected of merely indulging, perhaps unknown to themselves, the very natural wish of being always on the side, as it were of those whom they believed and knew for certain to be on Gods side. One might be tempted to allow a good deal for such partiality, were it not that the Fathers have themselves explained, fully and frankly, the principles on which they so acted. Those principles are mainly two : the one, a hearty sense of the Communion of Saints, as a still subsisting bond of union between them and the Patriarchal and Mosaical ages ; the other (which shall be first exemplified) a deep and reverential sense of Gods peculiar Presence and Interference through the whole of this history ; a trembling consciousness that they were near the invisible line which separates His agency from that of His rational creatures; which thought, wherever it becomes habitual, will necessarily make a religious man slow to censure, lest he be found blaming his Makers work unawares. This is the account of those passages of the Fathers, in which, considering the mystical meaning as undoubted, they seem to allege it as stopping the mouths of gainsayers. To do any thing like justice to their view, we must copy the acute reasoning of St. Augustin himself111.
"I lay down this first of all, that not only the tongues of those men, but their very lives also, were prophetical ; that the whole kingdom of the Hebrews was as it were a great prophet, great because He is great who was the subject of the prophecy. Wherefore in regard of those among them, whose hearts were trained in the wisdom of God, we must look for prophecies of the Christ who should come, and of His Church, not only in what they said, but also in what they did ; in regard of other individuals, and of the whole nation collectively, the field of prophecy lies rather in what God did with them and for them. For all these things, as the Apostle says, were our ensamples, our types or figures.
"And whereas the Manichĉans in certain actions, the depth of which they are far from comprehending, blame what they call the sensuality of the prophets ; this is no more than parallel to the reproaches which are cast by certain sacrilegious heathens on our Lord Himself, for folly, or rather for madness, in seeking fruit on a tree at an unseasonable time of year, or for a sort of childish simplicity, in stooping His head and writing, on the ground, and after His answer to certain questions beginning to do the same again. For why? they have no wisdom, no sense to perceive that in great souls certain excellences resemble certain blemishes in the mean and worthless ; there is some slight show, but no real fairness, in the comparison. And they who find such fault with the nobler sort are like untutored boys in school, who having learned for a great discovery that singular nouns require singular verbs, criticise the most skilful of Latin authors for the phrase, Pars in frusta secant. For, say they, he should have written secat.
"On which one might perhaps without absurdity remark, that the verbal turns and figures of learned men are not further distant in their kind from the ungrammatical and barbarous phraseology of the ignorant, than are the figurative needs of the Prophets from the sensual enormities of bad men. By which rule, as a boy, who should plead Virgils figure by way of excuse for bad grammar, would be presently beaten with rods; so should any person guilty of adultery with his servant plead Abrahams example, who raised up seed of Hagar, good were it for that man to meet with some severer chastisement, and not be eternally punished with other adulterers. I grant that of these comparisons one side are the merest trifles, the other side truly great ; neither does our analogy tend to such a thing as making a grammatical figure as important as a mystery, a solecism equally culpable with an act of adultery ; only, by proportion, in their several kinds, what skill and ignorance are in the virtues and vices (so to call them) of language, that, although in a widely different kind, are wisdom and folly in those moral virtues and vices."
(16.) St. Irenĉus more briefly had taught the same doctrine long before, vindicating the harmony of the two Testaments against the Gnostics, who were in fact but an earlier development of the Manichĉan school. He says112 :
"The great Revealer is the Son of the Father, as being from the beginning with the Father. By Him accordingly prophetic visions, and differences of gifts, His own ministeries and the Fathers glory, have been manifested to the race of man, in a certain train and regular system, at such time as was expedient. For where things follow each other in order, there is consistency and harmony ; and where is harmony, there each thing is suited to the time ; and where there is such suitableness, there is true expediency."
This is the same principle as was before observed on in Augustin, that Gods eternal law measures alike all dispensations, but that part of that law is a certain equitable consideration of circumstances ; and so far Irenĉus too admits a kind of accommodation or moral economy. He goes on : "For this cause the Word became Dispenser, Steward, Distributer of the Fathers grace, according the needs of mankind, for whose sake He contrived so vast arrangements." He proceeds to explain, that one of these arrangements or providences was, for the prophets of old time, announcing as they did the future vision of Almighty God, to see Him, see both the Father and the Son, not properly, but :
"so far as might practise and mould mens thoughts to receive that glory, which is hereafter to be revealed to all who love God. For not by discourse alone did the Fathers prophesy, but by vision, and conversation, and acts which they wrought, after the suggestion of the Spirit. In this sense then they beheld the invisible God : ... in this sense again they beheld the Son of God, who is Man, conversing with men; ... and the several progressive portions of that work by which He sums up all, they partly beheld in vision, declared partly in words, and partly signified as in type by action ; with their eyes beholding what God would have seen, by their discourse proclaiming He would have heard, by their acts fulfilling what He would have done ; in all, as prophets delivering their message."
(17.) The instance of revelation by action, which Irenĉus selects, is the marriage of the prophet Hosea, one of the cases on which the adversaries had taken occasion to speak reproachfully113.
"Christ showed Himself to the prophets in their typical actions, so as by them to prefigure and show forth things to come. Thus the prophet Hosea took to him a wife of whoredoms; by that act prophesying that the earth should commit great whoredom, departing from the Lord ; meaning the men who are on the earth ; and that out of such men God would be well pleased to take to Himself a Church, to be sanctified by participation of His Son, as she was sanctified by communion with the prophet."
That which Scripture here affirms of the marriage of Hosea, viz., both its mystical purport, and its having been contracted by Divine order, the Fathers consider to be implied generally in the histories of the marriages of Prophets and Patriarchs ; and surely they had warrant for their opinion, in St. Pauls commentary on the narrative concerning Abraham and Hagar, which is quoted by Origen (amongst others) for this argument114 :
"That Scriptural histories of brides and handmaids should be referred to the mystical meaning, is no doctrine of ours, but received of wise teachers from the beginning ; one of whom thus expressed himself, awakening the hearers mind to the mystical sense, Tell me, ye that desire," &c., (quoting the whole passage:) and then be subjoins : "Whoever will take up the Epistle to the Galatians will know how the allegory is employed in what relates to the marriages [of the Patriarchs] and their unions with their handmaids ; not as though it were the purport of Gods Word that we should imitate those who did so, in their external and bodily actions, but (as the disciples of Jesus use to call it) in their spiritual ones."
(18.) These remarks of some of the most considerable Fathers may serve perhaps both to explain and vindicate the judgment of the ancient Church on certain parts of the sacred history. The result of their rule is, that whenever an action startling to our moral sense is recorded of any of the holy men of old, more especially, when it is accompanied with, circumstances which clearly as a Mystery or Sacrament of religion, (the term Sacrament is used as commonly applied in Antiquity,) in such instances, (Scripture being silent as to the moral nature of the action), we cannot be sure that it was not either expressly commanded, like the sacrifice of Abraham, or at least prompted by inspiration of the Holy Ghost. It becomes us therefore not to criticise, but to adore.
This idea in various degrees pervades the reflections of the Fathers on the case of Rebecca and Jacob, coming by subtlety, and taking away what Esau supposed to be his blessing. One writer indeed, St. Gregory Nazianzen, has spoken of it in terms of censure. He having somewhere occasion to magnify the value a parents blessing, observes that115, "one of the elder saints thought it worth obtaining even by stealth, deceiving his father by meat and the contrivance of a hairy garment: he pursued a noble object by ignoble means."
But besides St. Gregory, it does not appear that any of the early Christian writers hesitated to consider the transaction in the same light, wherein it is represented by St. Augustin in the following passage116 :
"That which Jacob did by direction of his mother, so to appear to deceive his father, if you consider diligently and faithfully, non est mendacium sed mysterium. Which sort of thing, if we term it a lie, by the same rule all parables and figures must be also accounted lies. . . . But if we are not prepared to call it lying, whensoever words, signifying one thing through another are employed to communicate any truth ; it is clear that not only what Jacob said and did to obtain his fathers blessing, but also the discourse of Joseph, whereby be seemed to beguile his brethren, and Davids feigning madness, and other things of that kind, ought to be acquitted of the guilt of lying, and rather to be esteemed prophetic words and actions, to be referred [exclusively] to the truths which we were meant to understand by them."
He regards the whole as a sort of scenery, (if the expression may be reverently used) not only excusable but praiseworthy in Rebecca, as being undertaken on intimation Gods will.
St. Ambrose says117:
"Rebecca for her part did not so much prefer one son to another, as the righteous to the unrighteous. For in the mind of that pious mother the mystery overweighed the tie of affection. She was not so much preferring Jacob to his brother, as offering him to the Lord, who, she knew, had power to preserve the gift presented unto him."
This seems to mean that in consecrating Jacob to be the first born, she knowingly separated him from herself, and so made a great sacrifice. St. Ambrose adds:
"Hereby, she provided also for Esau, withdrawing him as she did from the Divine displeasure, lest he should be involved in deeper guilt, by losing the grace of the benediction once received."
These words mark strongly St. Ambroses sense of what should call the sacramental nature of the transaction. In substance, that view is sanctioned also by St. Chrysostom. He says118 :
"Rebecca, did this not of her own mind, but in obedience to the divine oracle. What then? a man may say, did God co-operate with such a falsehood ? Nay, my brother, consider not simply what was done, but look to the purpose : that He did it not for any kind of worldly advantage, but sought to attract to himself his fathers blessing. If we are always to look simply to the deed done, and not in every case to we shall have for the next thing to regard also the end, we shall have for the next thing to call Abraham an infanticide, and Phinehas a murderer. But not so ... for each of them was accomplishing a Divine decree. . . . Still more in this case your thoughts are not to dwell on the words of Jacob being formally a falsehood, but you are to understand that God, willing to bring His prediction to accomplishment, caused the whole so to take place by way of economy."
So far St. Chrysostom, who proceeds to point out Gods hand in many minute details of the transaction, such as Isaacs doubts being overruled; the special circumstance of his kissing Jacob, and limiting the blessing to him whom be kissed, as by a kind of sacramental sign; and not returning from the field until the economy was complete.
St. Chrysostom, we see, dwells chiefly on the marks of providential interference in the literal transaction : others have brought out in a strong light the allegorical force of the things then said and done, from hints given incidentally in other parts of the Bible. Thus St. Ambrose119, not indulging, his own, fancy, but following the tradition of an elder age of the Church : as appears plainly by St. Jeromes report of the commentary of Hippolytus120 on this chapter of Genesis:
"Jacob went to the flock, and brought for his father the offspring of innocency, or the gifts of sacred prophecy, because to the patriarch no food be knew could be more welcome than that Christ, who was led as a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb to the sacrifice....The robe which he wore Rebecca brought out, in her character as prefiguring the Church, and assigned to her younger son the robe of the Old Testament, the prophetical and sacerdotal robe, the royal robe of David, the robe of the kings, Solomon, Hezekiah, Josiah ; she brought out and gave it to the Christian people, which would know how to use the favour received. For the Jewish people had it without use, and knew not of their own rich apparel. This robe was lying in the dimness, cast away and neglected. For it was obscured by the dark gloom of irreligion, and in the narrow heart of the Jewish people it could not be spread out wider. Christs nation put it on and it shone forth ; illumined by the brightness of their faith and the light of their pious acts. Isaac recognised the order of his race, he knew the robe of the elder Scripture, but the voice of the elder people he did not recognise ; and thereby he gathered that there was change [of people.] For to this day the same robe remains, but a devouter nation hath arisen, and a confession clear and melodious ; well therefore said he, The voice is Jacobs voice, the hands are the hands of Esau."
Augustine121 adds the selection of the two kids ; "He bears the sins of others, and he bears them patiently, though they belong to others : for thus it is to wear the skins of the kids ; the kids being the scriptural symbol of the two sinful people ;" (and therefore one of the appointed sin offerings ;) "and Jacob wearing them to represent both Christ and His Church in that particular, the bearing of other mens burthens."
He dwells also122 much on Jacobs being declared just before to be a man without guile,
"a p l a s t o z ; a significant expression leading one to infer that the subtlety so soon afterwards imputed to him was not subtlety in a bad sense : it was a figure of speech, as when Christ is called a Rock : it was no real fraud, as Jacob might truly say to his father, that for the purpose in question he was his elder son Esau ; for Esau had before made the agreement, sold his birthright, and put Jacob in his own place."
Again123, there is the conduct of Isaac, instead of being angry he trembled very exceedingly ; or as in the LXX. e x e s t h e k s t a s i n m e g a l h n s f o d r a : which kind of extasy, commonly happening in the revelation of great things, we are to understand that God gave him warning in his spirit to confirm the blessing to his younger son, who otherwise should have incurred anger by deceiving his father.
Again124, he kissed Jacob before he blessed him, and not Esau : confirming peace to the one and not to the other.
(19.) These are the kind of circumstances, which, to the Fathers view, betokened the special agency of the Most High in proceedings otherwise questionable, and which, as they thought, ought to turn censure into reverence. It will be seen that they are reducible to three heads ; first, approbation of analogous conduct in Scripture itself, such as Origen produces, in the case of Hagar ; secondly, tokens of special providence in the particular transaction such as occurred to Chrysostom. in the history of Jacob ; thirdly, the use of known symbolical imagery, as marking intended adaptation to the Christian mysteries; which head, as we have seen, may be largely illustrated from Augustin and Ambrose on the same case.
It may be added, that they regarded themselves as especially bound to notice everything of this kind,to be than commonly afraid to censure,in treating of the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. On passing from their history to that of others, Augustin, it will be found, changes his tone, so far as to be less positive in his vindications where the Scripture is silent. The reason is implied in the sentence which forms the transition125. "Thus much concerning the three fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, whose God He willed Himself to be called, Who is our
Whom the Catholic Church worships." The Church had from the beginning to regard them as the chosen representatives of the Head Christ Jesus, and of the Body, the Church. God was not ashamed to be called their God ; they were in a peculiar sense the types of His chosen, His saints ; it was wise, and safe, and dutiful, to hold them in especial reverence. With this view126, Irenĉus, e. g, has expounded the whole history of Jacob ; of that one among the three, whose right to such honour the disputers of this world would be most apt to question.
(20.) In other cases, as might be expected, their scrupulousness and reverence were mainly in proportion to their sense of the mystical meaning. Thus where it is written of Noah, e p i e n e k t o u o i n o u , k a i e m e q u s q h , k a i e g u m n w q h , e n t v o i k w a u t o u , they had no thoughts other than those of deepest reverence, considering not only what is so obvious, that the whole was involuntary through ignorance on the Patriarchs part, on which many of them argue largely127 ; but also that which St. Cyprian writes, not in the tone of the ingenious inventor, but of one who had received it from tradition ecclesiastical128.
"We find, in Genesis, in the Case of Noah, an image of our Lords Passion : that he drank of the wine, that he was drunken ; that he was naked in his own house; that he lay with his limbs bare and extended ; that the nakedness was pointed out by his second son, and reported abroad, but covered by the other two, the elder and the younger: and other particulars not to our present purpose."
With the case of Lot and his daughters, as might be expected, they deal in a much more doubtful tone ; assigning as one reason the comparative imperfection of his character, and intimating a doubt (at least such is Origens view129) whether this can be reckoned among those narratives which prefigure Christs sacred economy. At the same time they are exact in pointing out the probability (to which the air of the narrative certainly would lead us) that the women acted under the supposition of the whole world besides themselves and their father having been destroyed by the fire and brimstone. "They suspected," says Origen130, "that some such thing had happened as they had heard of in the days of Noah, and they alone with their father were left for the renovation of the human race."
(21.) This interpretation (in which many of the old writers131 agree), while it shows that they, contrary to some peoples statements, used their common sense in applying to sacred history the ordinary distinctions and measures of right and wrong, exhibits also a clear instance of that other characteristic, which, as was before said, causes them in all their discussions to take the favourable side, to a degree which to many moderns has appeared extravagant :their deep sense of the Communion of Saints, as a relation really subsisting between them and the Patriarchs and Prophets, and not merely as a figure of speech. It should seems as if this feeling were the natural growth of the other, viz., of the reverential consciousness of Gods own immediate presence, over-ruling the Patriarchs conduct in such a way, as to make the whole a series of links, binding the old dispensations to the new. Those who really contemplated the matter so, must have looked on Noah, Abraham, Jacob, and the rest, as sharers with them in the same Sacraments ; not only as spiritual Fathers by the example of their faith, but also (since Christs coming) as brethren in His grace. The duty therefore of lenity of supposition, the command to impute no evil, would hold in their case with peculiar force ; becoming as it did the more affecting, by the sense that it was demanded not for the living but for the dead ; and the more serious and awful, by the knowledge, that for ought they could tell, Gods own hand and counsel might be more or less in the things which, they were blaming.
(22.), For these reasons we find the Fathers, constantly even where the Mystical meaning was entirely concealed from them, or where they gave it no direct considerationwe find them checking to the utmost all inclination to censure the holy men of old without express authority. The principle is laid down by Irenĉus, in words the more worthy of every believers attention, in that he utters them not as his own, but as the words of a certain Presbyter, who had heard them from the eye-witnesses and scholars of the Apostles. Irenĉus, having stated it as one of the marks of a sound teacher, that "he, expounds the Scriptures to us without peril, neither blaspheming God, nor dishonouring Patriarchs, nor despising Prophets," goes on to record the following, as an apostolical tradition132 : "That for the old Fathers, concerning those things which they wrought without the counsel of the Spirit, that censure is sufficient which the Scripture itself contains. God is no respecter of persons :to things not done according to His will, He himself annexed that censure which was convenient." He instances at large in the cases of David and Solomon, concerning whom, he adds133, "the aforesaid Presbyter affirmed that the rebuke of Holy Writ was sufficient ; that no flesh might glory in the presence of the Lord."
The next sentence, whatever some may think of the statement, contained in it, is at least a mark of the ancient Churchs anxiety to assert for the Patriarchs, as was just now observed, a part in the Communion of Saints.
"For this cause, that ancient Presbyter went on to say, the Lord descended to the regions under the earth, declaring to them also the good tidings of His advent ; remission of sins being appointed for them only who believe. Now those believed in Him, whosoever were hoping in Him, i.e. those who foretold His coming, and did the work of His mysterious providences, righteous men, and Prophets, and Patriarchs. Their sins He forgave as He did ours : which sins, therefore, it becomes us not any more to lay to their charge ; except we think scorn the grace of God .. For all men need the glory of God, and are justified not of themselves but by the coming of the Lord : those I mean who look steadily on His light.
"He taught moreover that their acts were written for our reproof, that we might know this first, that there is one God, both ours and theirs, whom sins cannot please, though wrought by renowned persons. Next, we might keep ourselves from evil things. For if those elders who went before us in Gods special graces, for whom the son of God had not yet suffered, were visited with such disgrace, if they transgressed in some one thing, and became slaves to fleshly concupiscence ; what shall this generation suffer, as many as have despised the coming of the Lord, and turned utter slaves to their own pleasures! . We ought not then, said that Presbyter, to be proud, nor to reproach the ancients, but ourselves to fear, lest haply after the knowledge of Christ, if we do any thing which pleases not God, we no longer have remission of our sins, but find ourselves shut out of His kingdom"
A little farther on he produces the authority of that same Presbyter for this sentiment134 :
"As on account of those sins which the Scriptures themselves lay to charge of the Patriarchs and Prophets, we are not to reproach them, nor become like Ham, who derided his fathers shame and fell under the curse ; but rather to thank God for them, that their sins were forgiven them in the coming of our Lord : even as they, he said, give thanks, and are glorified in our salvation :So concerning those deeds which the Scriptures, reprove not at all, but simply relate them, we ought not, he said, to become accusers, (for we are not more exact, than God, neither can we be above our Master) but we ought to look out, for the spiritual meaning. For whatsoever things are set down in the Scriptures without censure, not one of them is idly set down, nor without meaning."
And then135 he gives the example of Lot and his daughters, adopting (it is not Irenĉus, observe, but the apostolical Presbyter) that interpretation which Origen, as we have seen, doubted of as too favourable. A thing much to be remarked by those, who think little of the Mystical method, as supposing it a, figment of Platonism, or a contrivance of a later school in the Church.
A signal example of the mildness above inculcated had been given by the same Irenĉus a little before136, in arguing against Tatian, who denied the possibility of Adams salvation. He contrasts Adams proceedings even after his fall with those of the Evil Spirit, and says,
"It was another who seduced him under pretence of immortality : and being seduced, he presently fears, and hides himself ; not as though he could escape God, but in his confusion, because having transgressed His command,, he is unworthy to come to the sight or speech of God. Now the fear of the Lord is the beginning of understanding : the understanding of sin causes penitence : and to the penitent God vouchsafes His mercy. Moreover, by his girdle or apron he manifested his penitence in the way of significant action : . . . . as though he had said, By disobedience I have lost that robe of holiness which I had from the Holy Spirit : I now aknowledge that I deserve that sort of vesture, which can give no pleasure, but galls and vexes the body. And this dress evidently he would always have worn, humbling himself, had not God who is merciful clothed them with coats of skins instead of the fig leaves."
Another case very much in point is their view of the conduct of Abraham in Egypt, making known Sarah as his sister, not as his wife : it was no falsehood, as he himself explained afterwards, and, that there was in it no unfaithful timidity, Augustin137 argues on this ground that :
"it is a sound precept, when a man has any resource, not to tempt the Lord his God : and that our Saviour Himself set an example to that purpose, both by flying into Egypt in his childhood, and by going up to a certain feast not openly but as it were in secret.... So Abraham among strangers, because of the exceeding, beauty of Sarah finding himself in a double danger, both of her honour and her husbands life, and not being able to protect both, but having it in his power to do something for one of the two, i.e. his own life; that he might not, tempt his God, he took what precaution he could; and where he could do nothing, that cause he committed to his God."
One may observe in passing, that the suspicion of any particular want of faith in Abraham on that occasion is greatly lessened by what he afterwards told Abimelech138 : that the concealment of his marriage was not a measure to which they were driven by the present alarm, but one which they had constantly used by way of precaution since they first set out on their pilgrimage.
(23.) Elsewhere the rule of favourable construction is applied, where the act is allowed to he censurable, with a view to mitigation, not entire acquittal. Thus Aaron is conjectured by Augustin139 to have proposed to the Israelites the breaking off their earrings, with a view to withdraw them by the hardness of the command from their idolatrous intention. Thus Theodoret140, relating the oversight of Moses in striking the rock, insists carefully on the many circumstances which might seem according to human measures to render an expression of impatience for the moment completely venial.
"They (Moses and Aaron) being out of heart at their sisters death, the people set on them, mutinying for want of water ; they, therefore, impatient at such extreme unruliness, used words of equivocal meaning on bringing out the water, Must we fetch you water out of this rock ? in a tone as if he doubted, so great was his wrath with them. It was, however, a doubt not of the soul but of the lips only : for so the Greek Bible expresses it, d i e s t e i l e n , he made a distinction, or hesitated, with his lips."
Theodoret adds: "However, we must not forget that God pronounced this sentence (of exclusion from the promised land) with a view to another dispensation which He was carrying on." Here we see plainly the studious apologist : yet who can deny that the tone is right and scriptural?
(24.) The same lenity of supposition is sometimes extended to the conduct of persons, concerning whose general character Scripture is either silent, or at first sight might appear condemnatory. Thus of Rachel stealing her fathers images, Theodoret writes141 :
"Some say, Rachel stole them out of an affection she still entertained for them ; I, quite on the contrary, suppose that, desiring to free her father from superstition, she did, as it were, make prize of them : for of her general piety we are certified by the divine Scripture."
Having confirmed this by several texts, he proceeds to suggest a prophetic meaning.
"Jacob was a type of the, Lord of all : for, as God had two peoples,the elder, having a veil upon its heart, the younger, endowed with the beauty of faith ; even so Jacob, two wives, Leah, tender eyed, Rachel, beautiful and well-favoured ; the elder with many children, the younger barren : for the Church also of the Gentiles of old was barren, but became afterwards very fruitful. . Since then, the Church, upon faith in God our Saviour, pulled up by the roots the error of her forefathers, Rachel, being a type of that Church, stole the idols of her father, that herein also she might offer a dim shadow of the truth."
Here one is tempted to remark, how much we may lose by the cold, and dry way, in which we are apt to read the sacred history, as mere matter of criticism, historical, or moral, contrasted with the high and thrilling views, wherewith the ecclesiastical rules of interpretation reward those who fairly adopt them.
Other instances of the like lenity, applied even to persons more clearly in the wrong, may be found in Theodoret142 on the histories of Thamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah, and of the Bethel143 Prophet, whose advice caused the death of the messenger sent to Jeroboam.
(25.) A fortiori, one should expect the like mildness in the comments of Antiquity on the New Testament. One instance may be here given, because it relates to a matter which is and has been much misinterpreted: St. Pauls condescension in the matter of certain Jewish observances. St. Augustin exclaims144 :
" God forbid that we should account him to have done this deceitfully. For on this subject his sentence is well known ; that neither such Jews as then believed in Christ should be forbidden the traditions of their fathers, nor the Gentiles, on becoming Christians, be forced to observe the same : lest on the one hand those holy mysteries, which were known to rest on the Divine command, should come to be shunned as profanations,on the other, to be accounted necessary to salvation for all who turned to God under the New Testament. . . . . St. Pauls saying, therefore, I am made all things to all men, tells us what he did in the way of sympathy, not in the way of deceitful accommodation. . . . . . He is made as a Jew to the Jews, not by deceiving them, but by putting himself, in thought, in their place and mind."
(26.) Thus far by way of illustration of the two chief principles, by which antiquity seems to have been guided, in commenting on the startling and painful portions of the history of Gods ancient people. One more general observation remains : it is a negative statement, and requires a much larger induction than at present it professes to rest upon ; but it is submitted to the judgment of those who are really versed in ancient theology, Whether the Fathers do in any case plead the Mystical meaning of a transaction as any excuse for it, granting it indeed immoral. The Mystery comes in, to show that Gods hand was in what took place, and often, among other circumstances, may lead to the supposition of an express command from God, and so may indirectly tend to do away with the immorality : but the whole tone of their commentaries indicates, and sometimes they expressly disavow, any thought of palliating guilt by the simple fact of the action being afterwards found typical. Thus St. Augustin145, examining in order the cavils of the Manichĉans, against one narrative after another, premises in every case his literal defence or explanation, before be touches the sacramental or mysterious meaning. Thus Theodoret146, although as firmly as any one adhering to the mystical mode of exposition, advances in mitigation those circumstances only, which may be gathered from the letter, in such histories as those of Noah, Lot, and Thamar. Thus even St. Ambrose, who seems to have been most passionately carried away by his admiration of the elder saints, and most afraid to exercise any judgment of his own upon their conductand who in his second Apology for David, to which may be added some expressions about the incest of Judah, comes, perhaps, as near as any writer to a questionable plea from the mystical interpretation, as though it in some degree palliated the sin,even he, we shall find, does not enter on the consideration of the Mystery at all, before he has used considerations drawn from the literal history to adjust the degree of censure required by the case147.
(27.) If we pass from these indications of caution, to express disavowals by the Fathers of immoral use of the mystical principle, we meet with one in St. Ambrose himself148, remarking on the conduct of Aaron, in assisting the Israelites to make an idol.
"That renowned High Priest we can neither acquit, nor yet dare we altogether condemn him. However, he was not without a special meaning in taking away the rings and jewels of the Jews ; for they who were plotting sacrilege could not have the seal of faith."
Thus St. Ambrose : and his scholar St. Augustin repeats the same caution many times. For example149 :
"The conduct of Lot and his daughters we do not justify, on the ground of its having had a meaning, whereby it foretold the perverseness of some in future times. Their purpose in so acting was one, Gods purpose in permitting such actions, with a view to certain typical instruction, another ; His just judgment abiding the while on the sin of the persons then living, and His providence watchfully securing the mystical representation of others to come long after. The deed then related in Holy Scripture is a prophecy considered in their conduct who performed it, it is a crime."
Again, in speaking, of the incest of the patriarch Judah: the truth of the spiritual meaning, he says, and the criminality of the act, may well stand together150.
"The conduct of Judah, in regard of his unbridled passion, was evil, but without his knowledge it presignified an exceeding good : and let this caution stand for all other evil deeds of men, whereby He who records their history hath seen fit to prophesy good to us."
(28.) It is not of course pretended that the Fathers acted in all cases up to their own rule : so many of them, writing so miscellaneously, all of like passions with us. But it is believed that the rules above illustrated will go a good way towards explaining the difference between their theology and ours, in what may be called the casuistry of the historical Scriptures. And we, perhaps, should read Bible history to more advantage, if we tried to keep the same principles in view ; the principle, namely, of reverencing throughout the mysterious connexion of that history, even the most startling portions of it, with the Economy of our Salvation by the Son of God: and the principle of entire respect for the Saints of the Old Covenant fearing to censure them where Scripture is silent ; welcoming all reasonable topics of mitigation even where they are clearly blameable; never rudely sitting in judgment on them, but looking up to them as to elder brethren, who might of course err, but whom it is no part of ours to reprove, feeling as we must in every part of their history, read by the light of Christian faith, that we are even now with them in the more immediate presence of our common Lord and Father.
It may be, that thus our notions may remain unsettled, on many actions recorded in the Bible ; of which we would gladly know what to think, both for our own and other mens satisfaction. What then? it is one of the tokens of true theology, to acknowledge doubtfulness and perplexity, more or less, in every subject. A religious man would not think himself at liberty to question Gods moral government, because of the embarrassment continually occasioned by the inconsistencies of the good, and the general difficulty of discerning mens real character ; how then dare any one positively insist on full satisfaction in his view of the conduct of Gods Saints? As it is, the doubtfulness of many things has this advantage, sufficient to outweigh much annoyance ; that it lessens the apparent difference between the scenes of Scripture and common life ; lessens the temptation to forget how near God is to us; helps us to feel our true condition, as full of supernatural wonders, could we but realize them, as ever was and patriarchs of old.
Moreover, the habit of thus considering Scripture will prove in some respects an important doctrinal safeguard. The Saints (be it spoken with all reverence) were types of the Almighty ; their conduct in many respects analogous to His economies ; and if we use ourselves to speak or think of them hastily and irreverently, the transition will be found less violent than some might imagine, to irreverent ways of speaking and thinking of Him. Those who can bring themselves to talk superciliously, and judge by mere modern measures, of the conduct of Abraham or Jacob, or of the destruction of the Canaanites, are perhaps in a way to question the reality of the Atonement, or the eternity of the wrath to come.
Lastly, the same considerations may prove available, in some material parts of discipline, devotional and moral ;teaching us to acquiesce with things which we cannot account for, in the conduct of those who are more experienced, in Gods service than ourselves, and especially assisting us to recognize the overruling Arm, even in the worst excesses and perversions of men, and to take all tranquilly, knowing from whom it comes.
The subject which will naturally come next in order, is the Fathers application of the Mystical Principle to the exposition of the New Testament.
- 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. Quĉst. 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
- Quĉst. 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
- Ep. 63. Ed. Fell. p. 149
- Contr. Cels. iv. 45; in Gen. Hom. V. 5.
- In Gen. Hom. V. § 4, 5.
- St. Augustin, Contr. Faust. xxii. 43 ; St. Irenĉus. iv. 51; St. Ambrose. De Abraham. i. 56.
- Lib. iv. 45. p. 345. Ed. Grab.
- Ibid. p. 346.
- Ibid. iv. cap. 50.
- Ibid. iv. cap. 51.
- Ibid. iii. 37.
- Contr. Faust. xxii. 36.
- Genesis 20:13
- Quĉst. in Exod. 141. t. 3. pars i. 347 : comp. Theodoret on Exod. qu. 66. t. i. 170.
- In Num. qu. 37. t. i. 245
- In Gen. qu. 90. t. i. p.98.
- Ibid. qu. 95. p. 103.
- in 3 Reg. qu. 43. t. i. 487490
- Contra Mendac. ad Consent. § 26. t. vi. 339 : compare his correspondence with St. Jerome. t. ii. 64, 131, 148, etc.
- Contra Faust. 1. xxii.
- In Gen. qu. 56, 70, 95.
- T. i. 823, etc.
- Ep. 68.
- Contra Faust. xxii. 41. t. vi. 273.
- Ibid. § 82. p. 292-3.
- e. g.Whitby, p. 8 ; 345 ; & Pref. p. ix.
- De Div. Servand. § 29. p. 952. Ed. Potter.
- Lib. iii. 19. p. 244. Ed. Grab.
- p. 272. C. Ed. 1736
- In Joan. tom. x. 18. t. iv. 190. D.
- In Luc. lib. ix. 5.
- In Joan. Tract. 51. § 5. t. iii. pars. i. p. 462. A.
- In Joan. x. t. iv. 189. E.
- Works. xv. 77. Ed. Heber.
"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. iv. 187. D.
- De Bapt. c. 9.
- P. 998. Ed. Potter.
- Agam. 689, Ed. Butler,
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 .
In Joan. tom. ii. 27. t. iv. p. 86. Ibid. vi. 24. t. iv. 140. C. Ibid. p. 141. B. Ep. 108. § 10 ; t. i. 698 C. 699. D ; 700. A. Comm. in Ezech. lib. ix. c. 28 ; t. v. pars i. p. 339. D. S. Clem. Protrept. c. i. 10. Serm. 279. 2. t. v. 788. E In Epist. ad Rom. lib. x. 14 ; t. iv. p.679. D. In Act. Apost. Hom. 21, t. iv. p. 732. 1. 33. Strom. v. § 33. In Matth. tom. xi. 2 ; t. iii. 477. B. In Luc. lib. vi. 80. In Joan. tr. 24-5. De Div. Quĉst. 61 ; tom. vi. 24. F. Nihil vacuum, neque sine signo apud Deum. Iren. iv. 21 ; ed Bened. It seems to have been a sort of Christian Proverb. Orig. ubi supra. Strom. v. 81. Quĉst. Evang. i. 12 ; Serm. cxi. t. v. 392. In Luc. vii. 187, etc. In Joan. i. 6. iv. 39. In S. Luc. x. 47. In Jerem. Hom. xviii. 13. t. iii. 256. C. In Luc. lib. ix. 48. In Rom. ii. 5. t. iv. 480. B. In Joan. t. ii. 29. tom. iv. 89. D. In Ep. ad Rom. lib. vii. 4. t. iv. 597, 598. De Div. Servand. 29. In Matt. xv. 27. t. iii. 692. Strom. i. 23. Quĉst. in Matth. v. t. iii. pars 2, p. 201. C. ; in Ps. 90. Serm. 2. § 7, t. v. 733. E. De Unit. Eccl. t. i. 110. Ed. Fell. Pĉdag. i. 26. In Joan. vi. 3, t. iv. 108. C. De Doctr. Christ. ii. 46. Ibid. ii. 45. Hexaëm. ii. 3. Lib. iii. 8, t. i. 41. Comp. St. Amb. Hex. vi. 8 ; ii. 7. Hexaëm. v. 7. T. i. 47. C. Ed. Bened. 1721. Ibid. vi. i. t. i. 50. E. P. 333. Ed. Grab. de Libero Arbitrio, ii. 41. Ibid. 43 De Trin. vi. 12. Hex. vi. 6. Ibid. i. 16. Ibid. § 21 Ibid. ii. 15 Ibid. iii. 2-6. Ibid. § 24. Ibid. v. 2. t. i. 41. D. Ibid. v. 5. p. 44. B. Ibid. iii. 36. Ibid. v. 6. t. i. 45. A. Ibid. v. 7. t. i. 46, 47. Ibid. iii. 69. Ibid. § 71 Ibid. iv. 7. Ibid. § 32. Ibid. § 22. Ibid. viii. 8. t. i. 78. E. Ibid. v. 62 Ibid. vi. 26, 27. De Civ. Dei, xi. 26. Ibid. § 28. Ibid. § 28. Hex. vi. 58. i. e.when people cross themselves Hex. vi. 68. Ibid. § 69. Ibid. § 74. Ep. 63. p. 153, 154. Ed. Fell. Hex. v. 79. Ibid. v. 64, 65. Kirby and Spence, Introd. Entomology, vol. ii. 46. Heb. viii. 2 ; ix. 24. iii. v. 17. Ibid. ii. vii. 1. t. i. 113, 27. Ed Reiske. I. i. 2. Isaiah lxv. 17 ; Rev. xxi. 1. De Doctr. Chr. iii. 35. t. iii. pars i. 42. D. Ibid. § 38. Ibid. ii. 7.
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