ERRORS AND THEIR USES,
The Faithful made manifest.
PREACHED IN ST. JOHN'S, HARTFORD,
Advent Ember Sunday,
BY THE REV. JOHN WILLIAMS, D.D.,
I Cor. XI. 19. FOR THERE MUST BE ALSO HERESIES AMONG YOU, THAT THEY WHICH ARE APPROVED MAY BE MADE MANIFEST AMONG YOU.
There is probably nothing connected with religion, in which persons suffer their imaginations to lead them so completely astray, as in the ideal view which they form for themselves, of the history and progress of the Christian Church. It is not perhaps strange that taking into account the divine character of its Blessed Founder, and the ends and purposes for which he founded it, men should be inclined to form for themselves just such an ideal as they do, of the progress of that Holy Society, which is His Church, His Body, and His Spouse. Indeed nothing can surpass the ideal of the Church, which Holy Scripture in all places sets before us, whether in the words of the Prophets, the declarations of our Lord, or the teaching of the Apostles. But observe my Brethren, for in forgetting this, it is, that the main difficulty lies, that it is an ideal of the Church as such, and was never intended to present a picture of her actual condition and progress. For the very highest and divinest ideals, are always marred and injured, and in fact they must of necessity become so, when they are realized through human agencies, with all their failings and imperfections. What the great Head designed His Church to be, and how He planned her in her constitution and her work, is one thing. What men have [5/6] made her, in her actual workings and expressions, is quite another.
Now this distinction which I have assumed, between the ideal of the Church as such, which we gather from Holy Scripture, and the Church in her history and dwelling among men, is not a mere new theory, got up to meet a difficulty, and to explain a contradiction. On the contrary it lies plainly out to view in Holy Writ, and is frequently enforced and enlarged upon, not only by the sacred writers, but by our Lord Himself. A few words in proof of this, may not be amiss. If we turn to the writings of the Prophets, and it is not necessary for our present purposes to go beyond them, we find the Church and her condition described under such images as these. She is the Jerusalem of God, into whom there shall no more come the uncircumcised and the unclean; within whose land violence shall no more be heard, nor wasting within her borders; whose walls shall be salvation, and whose gates Praise. She is the way in which no ravenous beast shall be found, nor any lion, but where the redeemed of the Lord shall walk. She is the mountain of the Lord’s house, established in the top of the mountains, and exalted above the hills, where the nations shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, and lifting up no swords against each other, shall forever cease from war. If on the other hand we recur to the words of our Lord, we there find that the Church is a net, filled with fishes good and bad, and a field in which the tares grow up with the wheat; that it brings not peace upon earth but a sword; that it sets the members [6/7] even of the same household, one against another; and that in it offences must needs come.
Now how are these two sets of statements, thus apparently contradictory, to be reconciled? Not certainly by supposing as some have done, that all these wonderful announcements of the Prophet, refer to some future state of terrestrial glory and development. Far from this. For while we may perhaps look onward to a coming period here, when these glowing words shall be more literally fulfilled, whose complete fulfilment will be witnessed only in the heavenly places, still we are to remember two things in reference to them. First, that to a certain degree, and especially in a comparison of the Church’s work on earth with that of worldly kingdoms and human empires, they have been fulfilled; and next, that they present, as has been already said, rather an ideal of the Church as such, than as men have realized her and carried her out in history. [Compare Vitringa, on the various passages from Isaiah quoted above.] While it is to the mournful imperfections, the miserable perversions, and in some cases the utter destructions of that history, that our Lord refers, in His sad and woeful announcements.
The prophets then, if one may reverently venture so to speak, beheld the Church, as she was conceived and planned in the Eternal mind, and as she will repose in the glory of her final triumph, and in the beatific vision of her Lord. They saw her as the heavenly Jerusalem, descending from above in all the glowing freshness of her celestial beauty, spotless and unwrinkled from the hand of God. Our Lord was looking at her, as she toiled along her weary way amidst the nations, and [7/8] gathered stains and evils, from these human agencies to which she was entrusted; stains and evils which she shall cast from her in the day of her final triumph. The prophets sung their glorious vision therefore, and the Lord declared His sadder one, in words which are strictly accordant with each other. And the error into which men have fallen has been, that they have mistaken the prophetic vision of the Church as such, for a complete picture of her history and progress among men: and so, while dreaming over their own fancies, have forgotten that it was always, in all time, to be the case,—and that because the Church was given into the feeble hands of men,—that offences should arise.
Now one of these offences is indicated in the text of this discourse: “for there must also be heresies among you that is, giving the word heresy with St. Chrysostom its widest signification, and not confining it to its established theological strictness of meaning, there must be errors among you. And these words the same great Doctor considered, to have the same reference as our Lord’s declaration, “that offences must needs come.” Which assurance was given he says, “not destroying the liberty of the will, nor appointing any necessity and compulsion over man’s life, but foretelling what would certainly ensue, from the evil mind of men; which would take place, not because of His prediction, but because the incurably disposed are so minded. For not because He foretold them, did these things happen, but because they were certainly about to happen, therefore He foretold them.” [St. Chrysostom’s xviith Homily on Corinthians. Even Lightfoot says, “That is a sad accent “there must be heresies.” And whence comes that must be, or that necessity? Hath God any hand in it, that it must be because He will have it? Or is there any such necessity that it must be, because the Church hath need of heresies? There must be weeds in the garden. Is it because the garden hath need of weeds? It hath need of weeding rather than of weeds. But the must be proceedeth from the corruption of men of evil minds, that will raise up heresies,” Sermon on Acts xxiii. 8.]
 Heresies and errors then, in the Church we must expect to find continually. It is from the very circumstances of the case, and the nature of man’s moral agency in reference to divine truth, a matter of necessity that they should exist. Of necessity that is, not according to God’s will, but man’s perversity.
Such then being the fact, let us proceed to inquire somewhat concerning the causes and characters of these various and constantly recurring errors. I cannot of course attempt here, to go into any thing like a detailed account of either. It must suffice to suggest such general rules of classification, as may be practically useful, and at the same time brief And first as to the causes. Says an old writer, “Heresy is sometimes bred of ignorance, sometimes of too much knowledge: sometimes of too much carelessness about the word of God, sometimes of too much curiosity; sometimes of leaning too much to sense, and sometimes too much to carnal reason; most commonly of pride;—of men’s seeking themselves,—of crossness,—of boldness about divine things; and ever of men’s wilfulness to have their own minds.” [Compare Geo. Herbert’s Church Porch, Stanza iv. It is as true of this matter, as of that for which he wrote it.] While this however is strictly true, it yet appears, that as matter of fact and history, this wilfulness and these other states of mind, have issued in two distinct tempers, which have also impressed their own characters on the various forms of error to which they have given rise. These tempers [9/10] are indicated by St. Paul when he says, “The Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom.” The one temper leads to the fond imaginings of superstition, and the other to the bold questionings of profane incredulity. The one temper induces to the acceptance of every thing which comes recommended by a fancied sign. The other inclines to the reception of all, that brings with it the appearance, no matter how unreal, of wisdom. In the Apostolic times, the several representatives of these tempers, were, as we have seen, the Jews and Greeks. And although those classes of persons outside and within the Church have passed away, yet have their representatives succeeded them in an unbroken line, and the identical tempers which they exhibited, have lived, and are living at this present moment.
It must be observed moreover, that all the heresies and errors which at any period have infested the Church, have found their formative principle in the one or the other of these tempers. And we are thus furnished not only with a profound view of their truest causes, but also with a ready means, and withal a truly philosophical one, of classifying them. And here, not to go back to other and earlier periods in Christian History, this view may be readily illustrated from the errors of our own times. Look at them, my Brethren, in their principles, and you will find them ranging themselves according to the tempers of the Jew or of the Greek. You will find the one coming with its signs, whether of the monkish miracle, or the mesmeric trance, or the sudden illumination, or the unburied golden plates, or any thing else on which the fancy may seize, and to which unreasoning credulity can cling. You will find [10/11] the other parading its proofs of wisdom, whether in reducing all things to the level of the human comprehension, or refusing to believe what it cannot understand, or applying to religious truth, and the high things of revelation, those principles of examination, which only relate to the phenomena of the physical and the mental world. Thus, for instance, the temper of the Jew runs out into the dogmas of Purgatory, Transubstantiation, and the Immaculate Conception; and that of the Greek into profane denials of the Divinity of our Lord, the Doctrine of the Trinity, and the Sacrifice of the Atonement. Thus it has been, thus it is, and thus no doubt it ever will be.
Now let us still further observe, that the elements of these two tempers, are found in all persons whatever. So that while it will scarcely be the case, that all men will become leaders of others, or will even lead themselves, in one or the other of these two directions, yet all men are more or less liable to be so led by circumstances or persons, with which they may be brought in contact. Especially will this hold true of those, whose position and duties lead them to theological studies and investigations. And thus you find at once the reason, why in all ages, so many who should be teachers, have need that one should teach them again. Undesignedly it may be, and even perhaps unconsciously, they have indulged themselves in the temper of the Jew or of the Greek. They have desired signs, or sought for wisdom. And therefore they have been led to desert the signless uniformity of the Primitive Faith, or else what they deem its foolishness of statement, for the sign confirmed doctrines of popish or sectarian miracle-mongers, or [11/12] the philosophical elucidations of conceited and self-instructed meddlers.
But it may be said,—and it certainly presents an important question,—granting all that has been alleged: granting that on account of human infirmities and failings, there must be errors and even heresies in the Church, that they spring from and may be classified by the two tempers of which we have spoken, and that these tempers are found in all men; granting all this, still how can it be that really sincere and pious persons, should be carried away by them? It might indeed be readily supposed, that careless, thoughtless persons, who take little heed to themselves and to their Spiritual condition, should be. easily led thus astray. But how can it be that really sincere and pious persons, persons who are on their guard, and keep over their spirits a continual watch, should let these tempers run thus away with them, and be borne on to such sad results?
Now we may reply to this at once, that as matter of fact these things have ever been; that the fact therefore cannot be denied; and that what we have to do is to show how the two things may be made consistent with each other. We cannot deny the fact, and the apparent difficulty we are bound to meet. We cannot deny the fact; for illustrious names of Fathers, Doctors, and even Saints, as well as a host of meaner ones, attest it from the earliest days. We cannot escape the apparent difficulty; for it is one which lies up on the very surface, and is echoed and reechoed in our ears, in the demand, how his faith can be so very wrong, whose life appears to be so very right.
But is there really any difficulty, my Brethren, in the [12/13] matter? Suppose that in place of the word error, you substitute sin, in the question just now stated; and see to what an absurdity you have reduced it. I say absurdity; for who would not count it absurd to ask, how a really sincere and pious person could ever fall into sin? And the argument from analogy becomes here more cogent, when we remember, that error, according to its conditions and circumstances, partakes of the nature of sin. Surely then, if St. Thomas could doubt, and St. Peter could deny, even their blessed Lord, it need occasion no wonder, if others less privileged and no doubt less holy, shall wander away from the Faith once given to the Saints, and accept the additions of Trent, or the negations of Westminster.
Still I admit, that while these statements account for the fact under consideration, they do not fully explain it. And that fuller explanation I will give in the words of one, who was a venerable authority with our Anglican Reformers, and whose test of the Faith, is the sure detector of every error. Vincent of Lerins, [Commonitory, Chap. xvii.] in taking up this very question, illustrates it by the striking instance of Origen. He gives a noble description of his great powers, and lofty character. “He was a man,” he says, “of great industry, of great chastity, patience, and labor;” “of such universal erudition and learning, that there were few things in Divinity, in human philosophy perhaps almost none, which he had not perfectly attained;” one, “than whom there was never any Doctor which used more of Holy Scripture;” one, than whom, “no living man” wrote “more;” of whose “nursing grew up Doctors, Priests, Confessors, and [13/14] Martyrs without number;” “Who that was but somewhat zealous of religion, repaired not to him, from the farthest parts of the world? What Christian did not venerate him as a prophet? what philosopher did not honor him as a master? Yet on all this, great and miserable error supervened: and “this Origen, so rare and singular a man, too presumptuously abusing the grace of God, indulging too much his own wit, trusting himself as sufficient, little esteeming the old simplicity of the Christian religion, presuming to be wiser than all others, contemning the traditions of the Church and the old Fathers’ teaching, expounding certain chapters of the Scriptures after a new fashion, deserved that unto the Church of God, it should be said of him, If there arise among you a Prophet or a dreamer of dreams, and giveth thee a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spake unto thee saying, Let us go after other gods which thou hast not known, and let us serve them, thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that Prophet.”
Here is the explanation; and wonderfully in our own time has all this come to pass, in the case of one great name, who has drawn others after him into ways which they knew not, neither did their fathers know. It is not indeed for us to search the hearts of others, and it is our solemn duty to refer all judgment into the hands of Him who alone can judge unerringly the sons of men. Still, as regards the chief one among all those who have gone out from us, the case, so far as what we may judge of is concerned, is very clear. He, like Origen, “little esteemed the old simplicity of the Christian Faith,” and loved a newer and more complicated [14/15] theology; he too, “contemned the true traditions of the Church and the old Fathers testimony,” and took up with the decisions of that miscalled Council, which sets them both at naught; he too, “expounded certain chapters of Scripture, after a new fashion of his own;” and he too, called on his brethren “to go and serve strange gods;” to give “to the creature the honor due unto the Creator and to worship her, whom—being “Blessed among women,”—men have dared to call, the Queen of Heaven!
This difficulty, thus disposed of, relates to individuals. There still remains another to be considered, which has reference to the Church itself. For it may be said, and it is said, that although in the Church Catholic, such instances may be anticipated, still in the case of individual Churches, they are a scandal, a stumbling block, and a disgrace. This reproach so far as it bears on us, under our present circumstances, comes from those two opposite extremes, between which the old Primitive path, and therefore the path of bur vocation lies. The one party object that we cannot keep the Church from the incursions of the Jewish temper; the other, that we cannot preserve it from those of the Greek. Now that, in the communion of any single Church, or even of the Church Catholic, individuals never can be completely kept from error, is very certain. To recur to an analogy which has been used before man’s individual moral agency in reference to error, and his responsibilities also, are nearly parallel to the same agency and the same responsibilities, considered in reference to sin. Let us then illustrate the former case, as we very well may do, from the latter.
 So long as any Church proposes a sufficient rule of Christian living, sufficiently guarded against excesses or defects, and so promulgates and propounds it, that it may be known and understood of all her members, the sins and failures of individuals cannot justly be charged upon her, as marks of disgrace, or proofs that she encourages men in courses of transgression. [The word Church is of course used strictly, and without reference to its appropriation by voluntary and unauthorized associations of men.] This principle is so exceedingly plain, that it cannot require one word of defence; to state it, is enough. By parity of reasoning, for the analogy is complete and striking, we may assume the same ground in reference to error. So long as any Church proposes a sufficient formula of Christian Faith, and especially guards the commissioned teachers of that Faith, against excesses or defects in receiving and declaring it, it is no just reproach, it proves no tendency one way or another, that Jews may seek to add to if, and Greeks may strive to take away from it. Least of all is it a reproach, if finding that their plans are futile within her fold, they leave her for other places, and by that very act, proclaim her real strength, and their powerlessness for abiding evil. If she had no rule or standard by which to judge them, if there were no positive life within her to react upon them and to cast them out, then she would be rebuked and disgraced indeed. But otherwise she cannot be.
Now I need hardly say, that the Anglican Church, stands precisely in the position which we have been supposing. In the two Creeds and in the Liturgy and Articles, she distinctly and sufficiently propounds the Catholic Faith. In the same Liturgy and Articles she [16/17] especially guards her commissioned teachers, from the excesses of the Papacy, and the defects of mere Protestantism. While in the rule of her Reformation as declared by Cranmer, and Ridley, and Jewel; the rule which says “when one part is infected with heresies, then prefer the whole world before that one part, but if the greatest part be infected, then prefer antiquity;” in this rule I say, she sets forth the all sufficient guard against additions or defects of whatsoever kind. Accordingly, they who are not of her, have always sooner or later departed from her, to their reproach not to hers; witnesses against themselves, but witnesses too for her.
I trust that the division of our text, which foretells the existence of errors and heresies in the Church, has now been sufficiently illustrated. For we have seen that the nature of man must needs produce them, and that Holy Scripture distinctly anticipates them. We have seen from what two great tempers they spring, and take their characteristic forms. We have seen how great and good men may fall into them, even as they have done. We have seen under what circumstances they are, and under what they are not a cause of reproach and shame to the Church; and that our own Church in this matter affords no ground for any just rebuke. Let me now, briefly and in conclusion, ask your attention to those side issues of good, for which God’s mercy overrules man’s wrath. “There must be heresies among you,” says the Apostle, that “they which are approved may be made manifest.”
It is a principle of universal application that the mysterious and mighty Providence of God, brings good out of evil. And this is accomplished of course in manifold [17/18] ways. In the present case, side good is brought out of the evil of error, under two aspects; first in reference to the Faith itself, and next in reference to individuals.
Good then, we say, comes out of error, in reference to the Faith itself. Not that when divine things are had in view, we can assent unqualifiedly to that much perverted principle that discussion as such elicits truth; for how often have such discussions elicited mainly profanity and error. But that it is, notwithstanding, certain as matter of history, that error does confirm the Faith. [See Bandinel’s Bampton vith Lecture for 1780.] It does this because it summons around the truth “a cloud of witnesses,” whose testimony might not otherwise be given; and compels believers to speak with a distinctness which before perhaps they have not used. Thus it was the pestilent heresy of Arius, which gathered the Nicene Fathers to declare as one man, that the great Doctrine of the Trinity had been held all over the world from the very beginning; and which brought out those more distinct and searching statements of the Nicene Creed, whose force and cogency exposed the Church’s treacherous sons. And this one instance may suffice to indicate the ways in which the Faith is manifested and strengthened by the attacks of error.
So far as individuals are concerned, the good which God brings out of evil, seems to be, that they too are strengthened and built up, by that careful review and examination of the grounds of their belief which they are compelled to make. And apart from this, and this perhaps is what the text more directly alludes to, they are themselves “made manifest.” Prejudices are [18/19] disabused; positions once misunderstood, come to be comprehended; principles once stigmatized, are found to be true and safe; and many who for long and tedious years, have been suspected, and it may be, almost denounced, are approved before men as loving, true and loyal.
Manifold, then, my Brethren, as are the evils of error, still in God’s mercy it comes not without some comfort. Not indeed for those who cause it, for against such the Lord himself denounces only woe; but for those who mourning for it and abhorring it, can yet feel that they are only more firmly settled by it in the Faith once given to the Saints; and made more willing and more earnest, to witness for that Faith through evil report and good report, till Faith shall be forever turned to sight. So let it be with us. We on our part claim, that we have not declared unto you cunningly devised fables. You on yours may say, We know what we have believed. Therefore, “beloved, building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Ghost, keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.” And remember with sorrow, and yet without dismay, that “there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved, may be made manifest among you.”