Page images
PDF
EPUB

ter culture of ecclesiastical history; as if all the historical materials were already exhausted from them.

After the long interval of two hundred years Arnold appeared. With a mind which embraced every thing, he first shewed the Germans how a copious history of the church must be written, though he was not able to write it himself. His active, desultory genius urged him on with too much haste in his labors; his irritability filled him with too great abhorrence of the ruling party of the church; and so many fortunate triumplis over the usual historical prejudices, which no one before him had dared to enccunter, made him too bold and positive, without duly conciliating his readers, and securing their favorable opinion of his judgment. Mosheim, endowed with a prompt and pleasing genius, received with politic silence the plan of Arnold, not excepting its imperfections and faults, and labored after him, although with less boldness, still with more taste, with a better and more deliberate study of authorities, and with a kind of smooth eloquence peculiar to himself. His work supplied a want which had long been felt, without being satisfied, and has preserved his name in all protestant countries, even to this time, in honorable remembrance. Like his predecessors however, he is chargeable with many faults. They all meanly crept in leading strings; and there was wanting in all an enlarged view of the various revolutions in the church, for creating a proper historical method, according to remarkable divisions or periods. No one ventured upon a critical examination of the historians of the church to the time of the assembling of counsels, and of the Acta sanctorum; and, in general, of the sources of history lying at a distance. None char. acterised with sufficient acuteness the spirit of the church and of history, changing at different periods. None ventured to change, with the change of time and materials, the structure which had once been framed for the different centuries. No ore was animated by the genuine spirit of independence.

At length Semler appeared. He took a powerful and commanding stand, and surveyed the immense field of church history even to the borders of the eighteenth century, beyond which he did not pass.

[ocr errors]

At his entrance upon his office of Professor at Halle, Baumgarten directed him in the cultivation of this part of theological learning, and marked out to him the way in which he should go through a breviarium to which he was to adhere in his lectures. Fleury's very ordinary collections were throughout the ground-work. With his exalted ideas of Baumgarten’s immense learning, Semler could not dream that so great a man would in his public labors adhere to a meager author, instead of repairing to the genuine sources of knowledge. He now ransacked folios day and night, to illustrate his bre, viarium which was drawn, as he supposed, from genuine sour. ces, by means of a thorough search into them. All the helps furnished by Baronius lay before him; and he studied them with unwearied assiduity to obtain materials for his lectures; but he found himself not un requently, after long nights of anxiety, passed without sleep, still left to the vexation of disappointment. He now conjectured that there must be other books from which Baumgarten borrowed his historical treasures; but he could not find them.

At length he made his complaints to Father Baumgarten, and most anxiously en. treated him for such references as would enable him to procure with most ease and expedition all necessary instruction; for his prodigious and fruitless labors threatened to destroy his health.

Baumgarten had not conjectured that his scholar, Semler, would discover so much good natured inexperience in literary handicraft; still he was not disposed to forego any of his literary eminence, so exalted in the view of Semler, and dismis. ' sed the anxious suppliant with the unkind reply—“ every thing will gradually come to you.” In time certain uncom. mon French-sounding terminations in the proper names revealed to Semler the secret of a French original, and Heilman, Semler's particular friend, completed the discovery by informing him that it was Fleury. From this time he felt himself much relieved.

In the mean time necessity had led him to a diligent study of original authorities, which he uninterruptedly pursued from

[ocr errors]

this time, through all periods of the history of the church, to the great advancement of this department of learning.

The fathers now received all his attention, and he became in respect to them by means of his keen and happy views, what no professed student in the fathers had been before. This study however had been a subject of theological parade for ' more than two hundred years; but, as is commonly the case with studies of parade, it had been pursued without vigor and spirit. It degenerated into an idle employment, and a literary luxury, and served at best as an arsenal for polemics, whence they might borrow their arms to use against the catholic church. But the study of the fathers is capable of becoming in the highest degree useful, by enabling us to diffuse light over the darkness of theological systems; to represent impartially the first form of Christian doctrines, and hence the transformations which they have since undergone; to shew from their writings that what is now reprobated as vile and accursed heresy, passed with them uncontradieted for pure and complete orthodoxy; and to claim on their authority that freedom of judgment in modern theology, which was exercised by them without limitation or restraint. For this and much else, in which they are in the highest degree useful, they have not had the weight they deserve; and indeed have been almost entirely neglected, Who would have thought in the time of theological barbarism during the seventeenth, and extending even to the middle of the eighteenth century, of such a use of the fathers of the church, when a holy anathema threatened all those who should dare to break through the renowned barriers of the system-the formula concordice. The few men of elevated minds, who would illuminate the sanctuary of the church by light borrowed from the fathers, the great Calixtus, Arnold, Pfaff, the heralds of truth among protestants, met, sooner or later, the anathemas of their dull and illiterate contemporaries, or a theological martyrdom; and they were, long after their death, handed down to posterity as warning examples. Still they were eminently the ornaments of their time, not merely on account of their respectable theological learn

ing, but also in regard to their clear views' of the reigning theological system; and they contributed more or less to the reformation and purifying of the same, according to the several circumstances of the external condition in which they found themselves placed, to the genius of the race among which they lived, and the capacity of mankind in the same period for the reception of light.

Part of Semler's investigations concerning the fathers of the church was directed to the authenticity of their writings; and, if supposed to be spurious, to the designation of the person or party by which they were probably forged; to the object and end of the imposture, and what depended upon it.* He aimed particularly at a critical illustration and fair exposition of their writings; to which end he scattered through all his works many explanatory grammatical remarks. He shewed by many striking examples, that there is not only a peculiar chronology, but also a peculiar geography in the theological language; that in different places totally distinet meanings are connected with the same words; (as for example in φυσις, ουσια, υποστασις, &c.) that one must make this distinction, and explain every writer according to the place of his abode, so as not to find differences in things and opinions, which exist only apparently in the words. He made also instructive extraets from the fathers, as helps for interpretation and biblical criticism, and for the history of churches and doctrines. In regard to the last, as far as they are subservient to church history, he subjected the fathers to a critical examination concerning their peculiar circumstances and the contents of their writings, which in its vehemence sometimes perhaps degenerates into hostility and injustice, but always, if it deserves this blame, discovers a deep and masterly research. If he had once discovered in any of the fathers credulity, or

* See Semler's Latin and German works upon the oldest histories of the church, with the articles upon the epistle of Barnabas, the shepherd of Hermas, upon the epistle of Clemens Romanus to the Corinthians, the epistles of Ignatius, the epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians, and upon the writings of Athenagoras, Irenaeus, Cyprian, &c.

1

an inclination to the fabulous, he became inexorably severe against him, and distrusted every thing that he uttered. Papias was (who cau deny it?) a weak and stupid man;* which must excite distrust of his authority whenever he is the single voucher for a fact; Semler, however, stopped not here, but extended liis incredulity to most accounts which were vouched by Papias at all. In polemics Irenaeus and Tertullian were often hair-brained babblers and insufferable sophists; but are their historical accounts for this reason of no value, and destitute of credibility? They who have adopted Semler's indig. nant manner against these fathers, on account of their loquacity and sophistry, have colored all his judgments concerning them, and denied the justice which seems to be due to them, as the earliest witnesses in the affairs of the church.

Semler manifested great acuteness in discovering to what party the several fathers belonged; an investigation, which has led to important results, and must still continue so to do, if it be undertaken with that earnestness, which the fathers, from their importance in the history of the church, claim for it. He traced resemblances in the highest degree suspicious between Irenaeus and the montanists, and threatened to annihilate his respectability by an accusation, which, if it should succeed, must draw after it the total destruction of the church history of two centuries. Great advances have indeed already been made by means of the peculiar agreement discovered, and in a manner demoustrated, between Irenaeus, Justin, and the montanist, Tertullian.

Tertullian in particular received Semler’s full attention, in an edition executed by himself. At first he proposed only an impression of the five books against Marcion, to excite in young theologians a love of the study of the fathers, and to introduce them to the peculiarities of their language. The choice discovered his wisdom. Tertullian, the first principal writer of the Latin church, and classic author of the African ecclesiastics, the true father of church-latinity, a scholar, and a remarkable literary character, must, before all others, be the

* Poppy-head.

« PreviousContinue »