Page images

of opinions, that we might otherwise ascribe, as they have been ascribed, to traditionary explanations, or to mere misconceptions of our faith. It is in a great · measure by such investigations, that Christianity may be relieved from that apparent responsibility for what, in fact, are but the errors of its disciples, which, at the present day, is a principal obstacle to its reception.

It is true, that in the fundamental opinions of the early catholic Christians, as they appear in the writings of the most eminent of their number during the first three centuries, there was nothing that essentially changed the character of our religion, or was adapted greatly to pervert its moral influence.

But, when we compare their writings with the New Testament, and remark the operation of the world around them on their sentiments and belief, we are, if I mistake not, irresistibly led to the conclusion, that the religion of Christ, the religion taught in the Gospels, did not come into being at any period subsequent to his time. Those who became its disciples after his death did not originate what they but imperfectly and erroneously apprehended. They were not the authors of doctrines or of books, of which they were, in many respects, but poor expositors.

Nor, it may be added, did Christianity have its origin in any wisdom of a preceding age. Distinguishable, as it is, from the opinions of its earlier converts respecting it, it stands far more widely separated from all that preceded it, either in the Jewish or Gentile world. There is nothing human, to which its origin can be traced, When we understand the Gospels, and enter into their spirit; -- when we consider their teachings respecting God, his inseparable relations to all his creatures, and his universal providence and love ; their disclosures concerning man's immortality and the purposes of life, our duties and our prospects; their narrative as consistent as it is wonderful, and their unparalleled portraiture of moral greatness in the character of Jesus; and when we observe, that these histories are inartificial and imperfect, written in a rude style, clearly that of uneducated persons, so that their intrinsic character, even in this respect alone, precludes, as an incredible anomaly, the idea, that they were the result of literary skill, the study of philosophy, or any art of man, — it becomes evident, , that their existence cannot be explained by any thing known or felt on earth before the events which they record. It is a phenomenon, marked by its dissimilitude from all around

it, the unlikeness between the things of time and eternity, and, if I may so speak, between man and God.

As has been said, the religion of Christ is one thing, and the religion of the early Christians was another. But this renders it the more necessary, in order to estimate correctly the character of the early fathers, the early writers of eminence among the catholic Christians, that we should not forget the strong disturbing forces which acted upon their minds, to draw them from the sphere of Christian truth. They labored under great disadvantages from the universal ignorance of the Gentile world respecting many of the new subjects presented to their inquiry. On the one hand, they were biased by the inveterate errors of their age; and, on the other, so far as those errors were connected with licentiousness of life, they were repelled by them to the opposite extreme of asceticism in speculation and practice, an extreme to which, also, they were led by their hard circumstances, as members of a suffering and persecuted sect. To judge them fairly, we must be acquainted with the principles, conceptions, and modes of reasoning, which characterized the philosophy of their times, and had modified all existing forms of thought, having been transmitted from the ancient philosophers, particularly Plato, with the whole weight of their authority. We must know what advances the human intellect had made, comprehend the influences under which their minds had been formed, and compare them, not with the most enlightened men of modern times, who have enjoyed advantages for the culture of the understanding, which they never dreamed of, but with their predecessors and contemporaries. We must view them, like all other eminent men of ancient days, as figures in the age to which they belong, and not bring them prominently forward, surrounded only by modern associations. If ignorant of the philosophy of their age, we have no standard by which to judge of their intellectual powers. Nay, we shall often misunderstand their meaning, and may direct our contempt or ridicule, not against what they have said, but against our own misconception of what they have said. Now, the doctrines of the Gnostics will show us what extravagances might be advanced by those who were reputed able and learned men in the times of which we speak; and such is the connexion or identity of many opinions of the Gnostics with opinions that had before been held, or were appearing simultaneously in the writings of their contemporaries, that we cannot study their systems without being led to look beyond them to the philosophy of the age ; and, in doing so, we shall find that the Christian fathers suffer as little by a comparison with the Heathen philosophers, as with the Gnostic heretics. Such are some of the considerations incidentally presented to us in the inquiry on which we are now about to enter.

The Gnostics


be separated into two great divisions ; the MARCIONITES, on the one hand, and the THEOSOPHIC Gnostics, as they may be called, on the other ; this epithet being understood as referring to the imaginations of the latter respecting the Supreme God, and the spiritual world, as developed from him. Of the latter class, the Valentinians are the principal representatives, as being the most considerable and numerous sect, and one, the essential characteristics of which appear throughout the systems of other theosophic Gnostics. The fundamental doctrines held in common by the Valentinians and Marcionites were the following; That the material world, the visible universe, was not the work of the Supreme Being, but of a far inferior agent, the Demiurgus,

« PreviousContinue »