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Art. I. -An Inquiry into the Heresies of the Apostolic Age: in Eight Sermons, preached before the University of Oxford,
year 1829, at the Lecture founded by the Rev. J. B.mpton, M. A. Canon of Salisbury. By the Rev. EDWARD Burton, D. D. Regius Professor of Divinity and Canon of Christ Church. Oxford: Parker. London: Rivingtons. 1829. pp. xxxii. 600. Price 15s.
THE “Anti-Nicene Testimonies" of Dr. (then Mr.) Burton, has so fully established the reputation of its author as a sound, practical, and luminous theologian, that need is there none for us to offer our testimony to the suffrages which he has already won, in paying the tribute of praise which is due to the research, the learning, and the skill which characterise the present publication. Such a work as this, so full of information, and so rich in reference, we have seldom seen.
Our readers must not expect us to give an abridgment of a work of nearly 700 pages, in the narrow limits of the room allotted to us by necessity. But we shall, nevertheless, briefly state the most interesting topics touched upon, in a consecutive and natural order.
The plan of the work embraces not only the heresies mentioned in the New Testament, but all the heresies of the Apostolic age, which he justly considers to extend to the end of the first century, a period of history extraordinarily interesting, and unusually dark. Heresy our Author defines accurately to be, in its first acceptation, a choice; and brings forward Cicero, as alluding to Cato, under the name of a Stoical heretic; and Josephus, as calling Phariseeism, Sadduceeism, and Essenianism, heresies : and thus also the Christians were called heretics of Nazareth. The Apostles used the word with a mixture of Christian and Gentile feeling. As in ancient Greece, there were twelve chief heresies, so the Gospel is distinguished by its unity; whence were derived the terms heterodox and orthodox. It follows from this, that a man is a heretic who is not a true Christian : and that, therefore, any addition unto, or subtraction from, the doctrines of Christianity,
constitutes a heresy. Justin Martyr and Irenæus would, probably, have considered Mahomet as a heretic. In after times, the term was extended to those who embraced Christianity imperfectly; and the doctrine of the Trinity, as established by the Council of Nice, was the test of orthodoxy. Smaller differences than these are considered schisms, although in the writings of St. Paul, the terms are sometimes blended.
That there were heresies in the earliest days of Christianity, whilst even the immediate followers of our Lord were living, there are numerous proofs in the apostolic letters. Should any man ask, Why? we would refer him at once to our author, who thus explains the apparent difficulty:
It may be asked by some persons, as a preliminary question in the present discussion, whether it is not strange, that heresies should have sprung up at all in the lifetime of the apostles. It might be said, that the care and protection of the Almighty was of such vital importance to the infant church, that he would never have suffered the enemy to sow tares so early in the field. Or if we consider the apostles as proclaiming a commission from God, and confirming their pretensions by stupendous miracles, it would seem impossible for any human presumption to proceed so far, as to alter a doctrine which came immediately from heaven. It is not my intention to enter into the abstract question, why God allowed divisions to appear so early in the church. If it be proved that they did then exist, the believer in revelation will be satisfied that God saw wise reasons for permitting it to be so : and to the unbeliever, or the sceptic, it would be useless to offer such reasons, because it would still be open for them say,
that it would have been better if the evil had not existed. The believer, as I said, will be satisfied with knowing the fact : or, if he seek for a reason, he will find it in the words of St. Paul, “ There must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you." (1 Cor. xi. 19.) Which words are to be understood, not as ascribing a motive to the Almighty in allowing divisions; but as pointing out a good effect which came from them when they appeared: as if St. Paul had said, I lament your divisions, though I am not surprised at them : it is natural to our condition that they should arise, and God will not always interfere to stop them: neither is the evil, though in itself great, unattended with good : for where some err from the right way, others will take warning from their danger; and their own faith being strengthened, and made more conspicuous, will serve, perhaps, to lessen the number of those who might otherwise have fallen.-Pp. 13, 14.
It is indeed painful to reflect how short was the duration of that peaceful and heavenly calm, when “ the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and one soul.” (Acts iv. 32.) It seemed, as if the words of the heavenly host were then beginning to be accomplished, “ Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” (Luke ii. 14.) But the vision of the Angels was scarcely more transient than those peaceful days. The following chapter begins with recording the death of two disciples for avarice and falsehood: and the next with the murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews. Diversity of doctrine soon followed; and from those days to the present, as St. Paul foretold in the text, men have arisen, speaking perverse things, to draw disciples after them.”—P. 27.
To the implied testimonies of the Sacred Writings, may be added the direct assertions of the early Fathers, who, one and all, speak of heresies infesting the Church, and name Simon Magus as the founder
of them all. His doctrines are known by an examination of those who followed him; and the Fathers call them Gnosticism. The Gnostic tenets, indeed, were universal, and are well abridged in the following extract :
The system, as I have said, was stated to have begun with Simon Magus; by which I would understand, that the system of uniting Christianity with Gnosticism began with that heretic: for the seeds of Gnosticism, as we shall see presently, had been sown long before. What Simon Magus began, was brought nearly to perfection by Valentinus, who came to Rome in the former part of the second century: and what we know of Gnosticism, is taken principally from writers who opposed Valentinus. Contemporary with him were many other Gnostic leaders, who held different opinions : but in the sketch, which I have given, I have endeavoured to explain those principles, which under certain modifications were common to all the Gnostics. That the Supreme God, or the Good Principle, was not the Creator of the world, but that it was created by an evil, or at least, by an inferior Being; that God produced from himself a succession of Æons, or Emanations, who dwelt with him in the Pleroma; that one of these Æons was Christ, who came upon earth to reveal the knowledge of the true God; that he was not incarnate, but either assumed an unsubstantial body, or descended upon Jesus at his baptism; that the God of the Old Testament was not the father of Jesus Christ ; and that the prophets were not inspired by the supreme God; that there was no resurrection or final judgment; this is an outline of the Gnostic tenets, as acknowledged by nearly all of them; and it will be my object to consider whether there are allusions to these doctrines in the apostolic writings.--Pp. 41, 42.
Gnosticism has been deduced from the doctrines of the Cabbala from the later Platonists, and the Eastern doctrine of a good and evil principle. It will be out of our power to show here how Dr. Burton has proved, that Gnosticism differs from the Cabbalistic and Persian philosophy, and that it was derived from the Platonic doctrines : nor can we enter on his luminous exposition of the Platonic creed, which also had effects upon the Cabbalistic notions of the Jews. We just mention, that from Egypt, it appears that Platonism received great accessions both in peculiarity and mystery. On this part of the subject, the work of the Marquis Spineto, which we shall shortly notice, would form an apt comment.
The Essenes, who by the way receive little or no notice in the Gospel, are divided into two classes, the practical and the contemplative; the latter of whom might be justly termed Platonic monks : to them Gnosticism was greatly indebted ; but the Platonic school of Alexandria seems to have been the cradle of that heresy. We are not prepared to say, whether some of the passages quoted by the learned Professor from the writings of St. Paul, as illustrating the peculiar tenets of the Gnostics, are not more fanciful in their application than correct : such, for instance, as that in Eph. iii. 18, where preceding commentators have discovered an architectural allusion to the temple of Diana.
The fourth Lecture contains some able reasoning, and much learned illustration, in a statement respecting the character and doctrines of Simon Magus, the founder of the Gnostics. Dr. Burton conceives, that he has freed those doctrines from some of their impieties: but much remains of this most extraordinary delusion :
For he believed that the world was created, not by the supreme God, but by inferior beings : he taught also, that Christ was one of those successive generations of Æons which were derived from God; not the Æon which created the world; but he was sent from God to rescue mankind from the tyranny of the Demiurgus, or creative Æon. Simon was also inventor of the strange notion, that the Person who was said to be born and crucified had not a material body, but was only a phantom. His other doctrines were, that the writers of the old Testament were not inspired by the supreme God, the fountain of good, but by those inferior beings who created the world, and who were the authors of evil. He denied a general resurrection; and the lives of himself and his followers are said to have been a continued course of impure and vicious conduct.P. 108.
The word aiūv, on which the Unitarians have wasted so much ignorance and abuse, is we think correctly referred to the Gnostic doctrines : and that difficult passage, in the Epistle to the Ephesians, (ii. 2.) is thus cleared of much of its obscurity.
The Gnostic philosophy was filled with superstitious and mystical notions concerning Angels or Æons. The speculations of Plato would furnish an ample foundation for such a superstructure; and the Cabbalistic Jews would load it with several orders of good and evil Angels, the names of which were brought with them from Babylon.-P. 116. We
e quite agree with our author in the expression of the following sentiment :
If Simon Magus was the first who profaned the name of Christ to his philosophical ravings and his unholy mysteries, he is a proof to what an extent delusion and credulity may be carried; but he is also a proof that mere human philosophy alone may play around the ear, and exercise the head, but it does not touch the heart. * Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world ? the foolishness of God is wiser than men: and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”—P. 118.
The fifth Lecture commences with an examination of the word elements, which often occurs in the apostolic writings, and which Dr. Burton considers to apply to the present inquiry : this is succeeded by considerations on the word Pleroma, and here also the allusion is nicely traced. The great and pernicious error of the Gnostics respecting the non-existence of a final judgment, and a resurrection to eternal life, also undergoes an excellent investigation; and from it and the other startling errors of their creed, the immoral practices of Gnostic teachers are shown to have followed as of necessity. Dr. Burton refers to them numerous passages of St. Paul, which the zealous reformers of our times apply to the perversions of the Romish church. * Such are, 1 Tim. iv. 1-3 ; viii. ; ii. 18; xx. 23.
* Not more now, however, than formerly: Tyndale, in his Exposition of the First Epistle of St. John, deals largely in this mode of interpretation, and constantly calls
The reference to that branch of the Gnostics mentioned by St. John under the name of Nicolaitans (see Rev. ii. 6–15.) is an easy transition: and the Professor establishes in course of reasoning the correctness of his explanation of many other passages which have remained unsettled, by referring them to the Gnostics : such as Jude 4, 10-12; 2 Pet. ii. 13. The Cerinthians, however, believed that our Saviour was born of needy human parents.
Another of the heresies of the first century was that held by the Docete, some of whom maintained that Christ was not a material, but a phantasmal being, different from Jesus; and that the former, in the shape of the dove, descended on the latter in the waters of Jordan, whence the
of John ουκ εν τω ύδατι μόνον, αλλ' εν τω ύδατι και Tợ aiuatı, came to be interpreted in the water and by blood. Others pretended that the body of Jesus was an illusion. Between the two opinions there was no great difference; and the point to reconcile is, who first introduced them.* Touching the blood and water, the notes contain some curious illustrations, in one of which it is attempted to be established, by the silent testimony of Romish rites and the traditionary superstitions of the early ages, that the notion of the blood and water issuing from the side of Christ as proving his death, is absurd : for customs would establish the fact, of the wound in our Saviour's side being in the right, and not in the left side of his body! The fact, however, clearly disproves the notion of the Cerinthians, be it as it may.
One interesting circumstance elicited in the course of this inquiry is the coincidence between the philosophy of Plato, the Persians, and the Cabbala respecting a millennium, of which Dr. Burton is the best authority.
It is singular that all the three sources, to which we have traced the Gnostic doctrines, might furnish some foundation for this notion of a millennium. Thus Plato has left some speculations concerning the great year, when after the expiration of 36,000 years the world was to be renewed, and the golden age was to return. It was the belief of the Persian Magi, according to Plutarch, that the time would come when Ahreman, or the evil principle, would be destroyed, when the earth would lose its impediments and inequalities, and all mankind would be of one language, and enjoy uninterrupted happiness. It was taught in the Cabbala that the world was to last 6000 years, which would be followed by a period of rest for 1000 years more. There appears in this an evident allusion, though on a much grander scale, to the sabbatical years of rest. The institution of the jubilee, and the glowing descriptions given by the prophets of the restoration of the Jews and the reign of the Messiah, may have led the later Jews to some of their mystical fancies: and when all these systems were blended together by the Gnostics, it is not strange if a millennium formed part of their creed long before the time of Cerinthus.—Pp. 177, 178.
Antichrist the Pope. It affects not the real application of allusions, to say, that they have a meaning which may be doubly applied, as in the case where the Church of Rome has assumed for its own the ancient doctrines of another heresy.
• There are four others mentioned, Cleobulus, Claudius, Demas, and Hermogenes, of whom Epiphanius gives the history.