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“the Lord hath taken away," he hath also“ given;" and that it is our duty, as well as our interest, to exclaim, “ Blessed be the name of the Lord."
But “ the Lord will not always strive with man." There is a time, determined in the counsels of Omnipotence, when the mercies and the judgments of God shall be withdrawn, and man is left to the bent of his own evil genius, and the inclination of his evil nature; when, wearied by vain obstinacy and unshrinking profligacy, the Holy Spirit is provoked to quit the heart, which he would willingly have turned to righteousness, and the profane and impenitent sinner is reserved for the dread hour of judgment. When the sentence was decreed against the barren fig-tree, “ Cut it down, why cumbereth it the ground?” the dresser of the vineyard is represented as addressing these important words to the great Master, “ Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it. And if it bear fruit, well; and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down." So is it with man and his Maker. God comes, year by year, and day by day, seeking fruit, and, too often, finds none. His patience nearly exhausted, he is forced to issue the decree of justice, • Cut it down, why cumbereth it the ground ?” Cut down this barren member of my Church; why does he receive those blessings which another would improve to his own interest, and my honour and glory? Then Christ, the Intercessor and the Advocate, pleads with his Father for a longer continuance of his patience and long-suffering, whilst he endeavours, by a last kind effort, to awaken and arouse the slumbering conscience, stir up the sluggish fountain of duty, and infuse, once more, into the heart of the infirm disciple, the graces of the Holy Spirit. If it improve under this affectionate and final discipline, he will receive the reformed and chastened soul into his love and favour; but, if it continue still irresolute and incorrigible, he then leaves it to the penalty which he, as Judge, is bound to assign as its appropriate reward.
Let not this affecting and important parable pass unheeded. Let me persuade you to consider it as addressed to you collectively and individually; as to persons who, whether spared for a longer or a shorter period, must one day appear before the judgment-seat of Christ. The season at which we are arrived, gives me an opportunity of enforcing an attention to this passage in the teaching of your Redeemer, which I earnestly desire you will not carelessly neglect. You have now entered upon another of those periods of time, by which your earthly existence is calculated and assigned. The year which has just closed is swallowed up in the ocean of eternity; whilst the actions of your lives, which have transpired in its course, remain indelibly inscribed in the books of the recording angel. Who is there that is amongst us now, that can presume to say, that, at the close of the present year, he shall be found amongst us in the house of God? Who is there that shall venture to assert, that he shall be found in the land of the living? If we look around us, do we not find many missing, who, at the beginning of the last year, assembled with their brethren in the house of God, to praise him for his past mercies,
and to beg a continuance of them for the future? They were then in the enjoyment of health and strength, and in the fulness of their days;
the place thereof knoweth them no more.” They have. been summoned to their account, with all their imperfections on their heads; and, if the sentence which removed them from an earthly trial to a heavenly judgment, was like that which was pronounced upon the barren fig-tree, " Cut it down, why cumbereth it the ground?” sad, indeed, must be their fate through all eternity. God only knows how many
us, who are met here to-day, will be suffered to meet again at the close of the present year. God only knows who will be summoned next into his awful presence! The decree, by which our days are numbered, may have gone forth against myself, or against any one amongst my numerous hearers ! And may God in his mercy grant, that whoever is marked out for the final stroke of death, may find grace to improve, to his eternal welfare, the small portion of time which is allotted him, to fit and to prepare his soul for the coming of the great Master of the vineyard.
Let every one, then, deeply consider, that his everlasting interest is concerned in the events of that new year, which God in his mercy has spared him to see. When we have arrived at its conclusion, we may find ourselves, perhaps, in a world where there is no repentanceno means of amendment or salvation. With some, that final year is already far advanced ; and if, when the summons comes, they are found wanting in the fruits of holiness, it will be too late to reflect, or to look back
the many years in which the Lord came seeking fruit, and found none.
It will be to no purpose, that they remember how many warnings they despised, how many mercies they did not acknowledge, and how many opportunities of making peace with God they utterly neglected.
Let me then exhort you, my brethren, to give heed to what the parable has set before you. Let me entreat you, in the name of Christ, and as you value your eternal interests, to consider whether you are not in the awful condition represented under the similitude of à barren fig-tree, bearing leaves, in the outward form and appearance of religious faith, but being wanting in the only thing which the Lord of the vineyard will require of you—the fruit of sincere piety and unaffected devotion. If you lack this genuine fruit of faith, the good works which spring of faith, if you are solely contented with assembling in the house of God, and with the outward decencies of life, without exhibiting your actual increase and perfection in grace and righteousness, you may be certain of your fate--" Cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground?” But if, excited by the near view of such an awful consummation, you repent, and endeavour to renew your hearts unto holiness, perfecting its fruits in the fear of God, and thriving under the kind care and cultivation which his eternal Spirit waits to confer upon you, you may escape the doom which is recorded in the Gospel
ON THE EARLY FATHERS OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH.
No. I. “Omni antiquitate uti possumus, quæ, quo propius aberat ab ortu et divina progenie, hoc
melius ea fortasse, quæ vera erant, cernebat.”—Cic. Tusc. Quæst. 12.
INTRODUCTORY OBSERVATIONS: --SECT. I.
Not only in the writings of St. Paul, but in other parts also of the Holy Scriptures, in the Old as well as in the New Testament, there are many things hard to be understood, which have been wrested and perverted to the support of doctrines and opinions never contemplated by the inspired writers. Sects and heresies have arisen from time to time without number; differing from each other, and from the truth, in a multiplied diversity of particulars, and all equally defending their respective creeds by an appeal to the same volume of inspiration, frequently by the authority of the same Apostle, and not uncommonly of the same text. Even among members of the same communion a diversity of opinions unhappily prevails, and the unity of the Spirit is disturbed by the inculcation of doctrines by one party which the other cannot conscientiously derive from the authority of Scripture. Corruptions, moreover, both in respect of doctrine and discipline, have originated in what the Scriptures do not, no less than in what they do enjoin. Hence the many gross and idolatrous errors of Papal Rome, which she pretends to be founded upon Apostolical authority, and to have been received, by oral tradition, from St. Peter himself. It becomes therefore an object of importance with the Theological student, to trace these perversions of Scripture on the one hand, and these traditional corruptions on the other, to their source; to aim at orthodoxy in faith, by inquiring into the opinions of the purest ages of the Gospel ; and to try the discipline of the Church to which he belongs by the test of Apostolical usage.
To the attainment of this object, nothing will be found more conducive than the study of PATRISTICAL Theology. Of the early Fathers many were contemporary with the Apostles themselves, and their immediate successors; and had doubtless the best opportunities of information on any case of difficulty, whether in respect of doctrine or of discipline. They could refer to the writers themselves for an explanation of any particular, concerning which doubts might arise ; and the continual intercourse which was kept up by the Apostles with the Churches which they founded, afforded additional means of ascertaining the true import of their instructions. St. John informs us, in the conclusion of his gospel, that there were many other things which Jesus did, besides those which the Evangelists have recorded; and so there were, unquestionably, many sermons of his Apostles, and many, conversations which they held with divers of the primitive converts, which have not been handed down to modern times.
It is reasonable to suppose, however, that they would long be treasured in the
VOL. XII. NO. I.
memory of those who had the benefit of hearing them; and that many of the interpretations of Scripture, which are scattered through the writings of the early Fathers, are founded upon the immediate authority of the inspired penmen themselves. To this effect, indeed, are the words of Papias, as cited in Euseb. Hist. Eccl. III. 39. Ου γάρ τοις τα πολλά λέγουσιν έχαιρον, ώσπερ οι πολλοί, αλλά τοίς ταληθή διδάσκουσιν ου δε τοις τας αλλοτρίας εντολάς μνημονεύουσιν, αλλά τοϊς τας παρά του Κυρίου τη πίστει δεδομένας, και απ' αυτής παραγινομένας της αληθείας Ει δε που και παρηκολουθηκώς τις τοις πρεσβυτέροις έλθοι, τους των πρεσβυτέρων ανέκρινον λόγους τί 'Ανδρέας, ή τι Πέτρος είπεν ή τί Φίλιππος ή τί θωμάς, ή Ιάκωβος ή τι Ιωάννης, ή Ματθαίος ή τις έτερος των του Κυρίου μαθητών άτε 'Aριστίων και ο πρεσβύτερος Ιωάννης, οι του Κυρίου μαθηται λέγουσιν. Ου γαρ τα εκ των βιβλίων τοσσούτόν με ωφελεϊν υπελάμβανον, όσον τα παρά ζώσης φωνής και μενούσης.
In addition to this paramount advantage, the early Fathers were also intimately acquainted with the manners and customs of the age and country in which our Saviour lived and preached; they were familiar with the prevailing ideas, opinions, and prejudices of the persons among whom he first published his Gospel, and to whom the Apostles carried it immediately after his ascension: they watched with a jealous eye over the slightest deviation from the genuine spirit of the christian scheme: they were addicted to no party, and were earnest only for the truth; and their faithful attachment, and firm devotion to the infant religion of Jesus, were abundantly testified by the readiness with which they laid down their lives in its defence. The nearer therefore we approach to these times of primitive purity, the less likely is corruption, either in doctrine or practice, to have found its way into the Church: as the stream flows with greater clearness at its source.
It is true that the Fathers are not always to be relied upon in their interpretations of the Sacred Scriptures. Their comments are sometimes fanciful, and their observations irrelévant and obscure. We meet with this however much more frequently in the later than in the earlier Fathers; and indeed through the first three centuries there is little to be complained of on the score of heterodoxy. At all events, we have a resource in the Scriptures themselves against any false opinions which may be occasionally broached in their works ; and to these must always be the last appeal, as the only sure and infallible guide. It only contended that those, who lived nearest to the Gospel times, are more likely than others, who had not these advantages, to be the safest repositories of Gospel truth.
An objection, however, has been urged, that even in the Apostolic age disputes had arisen in' the Church, and consequently that the testimony of the Fathers cannot be safely relied on. True it is that the controversy respecting the observation of Easter had then commenced between Polycarp and Anicetus, the former of whom appealed to the practice of St. John for one time, the latter to that of St. Peter for another. (Euseb. Hist. Eccl. IV. 14.) But, if occasional differences are to be received as decisive against the general testimony of the Fathers, the contention between Paul and Barnabas, and the error of St. Peter, which was severely reprehended by St. Paul, would go some way towards weakening the authority of the Apostles themselves.
Both the Apostles and the Fathers, however, were men, and fallible : and if they are to be rejected on this account, all human testimony is at an end.
It is possible, indeed, that in the case in question both the disputants may have been correct; and that the Apostles generally, regarding it as a matter of comparative indifference, left the time of the observation of Easter to be settled by the several Churches, according to the prevailing practice of each respectively. One thing at least is clearly ascertained from the dispute : viz. that Easter has been observed as a solemn festival from the earliest ages of the Christian Church.
It is indeed in the evidence that they afford to matters of fact, that the testimony of the Fathers is particularly useful. They may be right or wrong, though less likely to be so than modern controversialists, in the interpretation of any given text, or the explanation of any of the Christian doctrines. We may not choose perhaps to assent to the various notions which they have promulgated respecting the mysterious nature of the Trinity in Unity: but it would be idle to assert that the doctrine was not recognized in the primitive Church, in the face of their congregated testimony from the Apostles downward. Had no allusion appeared in their writings to this great and fundamental doctrine of the Gospel, the Scriptures of the New Testament, even without the controverted passage of 1 John v. 9, would
unquestionably have beeen sufficient to establish its certainty ; but the absence of all mention of it in the records of the early Christians, could not have been otherwise regarded, than as a most unaccountable anomaly in the history of mankind. In fact, the negative testimony, which the silence of the Fathers sometimes affords in relation to some of the tenets of modern times, is scarcely less important than their positive assertions. At the Reformation, for instance, the Papists did not hesitate to appeal to the early Fathers in support of the numerous corruptions of the Romish Church; but no sooner did Jewel set them in array on the side of the Reformers, than the weakness of his adversaries was completely exposed. He challenged them to produce a single record, from their genuine writings, containing any allusion to the sacrifice of the Mass, the adoration of the Virgin, or any of those idolatries, which Protestants had abjured : and the plea of Apostolical usage vanished at once. Not that the authority of any of the early Christian writers would have been a valid support of the Romish errors, condemned, as they are, by the whole body of the Scriptures; but that the want of this authority destroyed even the traditional antiquity to which they pretended. Precisely in the same degree, their allusion to any Apostolical custom, mentioned in the New Testament, attests the continuance of such usage in the ages diately succeeding; and certain forms and ceremonies, which they relate to have been adopted by the Apostles, may be considered as traced through them to the earliest antiquity. It is thus that we find that the sign of the cross in Baptism was employed in the purest ages of the Church ; and tradition, such as this, is justly regarded as a sufficient reason against its abolition.
An instance or two, of a more important nature, may not here be out of place. The sign of the cross in Baptism may possibly be looked