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preached doctrines so new and offensive as those of the preexistence and divinity of Christ, should have been rejected with abhorrence.
When we consider how late the three first Gospels were written, the last of them not long before that of John, which was near, if not after, the destruction of Jerusalem, and that, in the opinion of the writers above-mentioned, all this caution and reserve had been necessary, till that late period, on the part of the Christian teachers, how is it possible that, in their idea, the Christian church in general should have been well established in the belief of our Lord's divinity? It could only have been great and open zeal on the part of the apostles, and not the timid caution and management which these writers ascribe to them, that could have effectually taught a doctrine which, according to them, the people were ill prepared to receive. And the history of both Peter and Paul sufficiently prove, that the influence of mere apostolical authority was not so great at that time as many persons now take it to have been. Whatever power they had, they were not considered as lords over the faith of Christians.
The Christians of that age required something more than the private opinion of an apostle. They required some supernatural evidence that his doctrine was from God; and we have no account of the apostles proposing to them this additional article of faith, and alleging any such evidence for it. Chrysostom says, “ If the Jews were so much offended at having a new law superadded to their former, how much more would they have been offended, if Christ had taught his own divinity !” May it not be supposed, therefore, that they would have required as particular evidence of a divine revelation in the one case as in the other? And what remarkably strong evidence was necessary to convince them that the obligation of their law did not extend to the Gentiles ! Would they, then, have received what Chrysostom considered as the more offensive doctrine of the two, without any pretence to a particular revelation on the subject? It
may be said, that all the caution of which we have been speaking was necessary with respect to the unbelieving Jews only, into whose hands these Gospels, and the other writings of the New Testament, might fall. But how impossible must it have been to conceal from the unbelieving Jews the doctrine of the divinity of Christ, if it had been a favourite article with the believing Jews! If this had been the case, it could not but have been known to all the world ; and, therefore, all the offence that it could have given would have been unavoidable. So that this supposed caution of the evangelists, &c., would have come too late, and would have answered no purpose whatever. .
This caution, therefore, must necessarily have respected those persons into whose hands the Gospels, &c., were most likely to come, and who would give the most attention to them; and these were certainly the believing Jews, and the Christian world at large, and not Unbelievers of any nation. We are authorized to conclude, that in the opinion of the writers who have spoke of it, of whatever weight that opinion may be, this caution in divulging the doctrine of the divinity of Christ was necessary with respect to the great body of Christians themselves, and especially the Jewish Christians. Consequently, they must have supposed, that at the time of these publications, which was about A.D. 64, the doctrine of the divinity of Christ was not generally held by Christians, and that there would have been danger of giving them great offence if at that time it had been plainly proposed to them by the apostles themselves. At this period, therefore, it may be inferred, that, in the opinion of these writers, the Christian church was principally Unitarian, believing only the simple humanity of Christ, and knowing nothing of his divinity or pre-existence.
From the acknowledgment which these orthodox fathers could not help making, (for certainly they would not do it unnecessarily,) that there were great numbers of proper Unitarians in the age of the apostles, it seems not unreasonable to conclude, that there were great numbers of them in the age immediately following, and in their own. And their knowledge of this might be an additional reason for the opi. nion that they appear to have formed of that prevalence in the apostolic age. Would these fathers have granted to their enemies spontaneously, and contrary to truth, that the Jews were strongly prepossessed against the doctrine of the divinity of Christ, and that the Unitarians were a formidable body of Christians while the apostles were living, if it had been in their power to have denied the facts The consequence of making these acknowledgments is but too obvious, and must have appeared so to them, as well as it now does to others, which makes them so unwilling to make it after them.
I cannot conclude this chapter without observing, in how unworthy a manner, and how unsuitably to their real character and conduct, these fathers represent the apostles as
They were all nlain men far from being qualified or
disposed to act so cunning a part as is here ascribed to them. There is nothing like art or address in the conduct of any of them, as related in the Scriptures, except that of Paul; and this was only with respect to his preaching the gospel to the uncircumcised Gentiles, before it was generally approved of at Jerusalem ; on which account, he informed the chief of the apostles only of what he had done. But this was no secret long, and indeed a thing of that kind could not, in its own nature, have been much of a secret at any time. On all other occasions he failed not to inform those to whom he preached, of “ the whole counsel of God;” as he says that he had done with respect to the church of Ephesus ( Acts xx. 27). Much less can it be supposed that he would have concealed a doctrine of so great magnitude and importance as that of the pre-existent dignity of his Master; and, communicating it only to a few, have left it to be taught after his death : for it is not to be supposed that the other apostles were in the secret of John's intending to do it after their deaths.
Besides, the instructions of the apostles enjoined them to teach all that they knew, even what their Master had communicated to them in the greatest privacy. Whereas, upon this scheme, they must have suffered great numbers to die in the utter ignorance of the most important truths of the gospel, lest, by divulging it too soon, the conversion of others should have been prevented.
To these observations I would add, that as among the twelve apostles, there must have been men of different tempers and abilities, it is not probable that they should all have agreed in conducting themselves upon this plan, viz. of not divulging the doctrine of the divinity of their Master till their hearers should be sufficiently persuaded of his Messiahship. Some of them would hardly have been capable of so much refinement, and would certainly have differed about the time when it was proper to divulge so great a secret. Besides, the mother of Jesus, and many other persons of both sexes, must have been acquainted with it; for that this secret was strictly confined to the twelve apostles, will hardly be maintained; and yet we have no account either of their instructions to act in this manner, or of any difference of opinion or of conduct, with respect to it.
Never, sure, was a more improbable hypothesis ever formed to account for any thing, than this of the Christian fathers to account for the late teaching of the doctrines of the pre-existence and divinity of Christ. But their circumstances
left them no alternative. They must have had some very cogent reason for admitting that the teaching of these doctrines was so late; and this could not have been any thing but the want of that general prevalence which they would have had, if they had been taught with effect in the life-time of the apostles, and which would have continued to their own times. They must, therefore, have known that there were more Unitarians in the church in the early ages than they could account for, on any other hypothesis than that of the doctrines of the pre-existence and divinity of Christ not having been taught till very late. At present, the facts which forced the fathers upon this hypothesis are forgotten, and the orthodox themselves wonder that they should have adopted a scheme so absurd and improbable. But the different manner in which such an hypothesis is received is a proof of a great difference in the circumstances and views of things in the different periods. We see nothing to make so strange an hypothesis necessary. They would not have had recourse to it, if it had not been necessary.
CHAPTER VIII. Of the Nazarenes and the Ebioniles, shewing that they were
the same People, and that none of them believed the Divinity or Pre-existence of Christ.
We have seen that, according to the unanimous and very express testimony of the Christian fathers, (a testimony which is greatly against their own cause, and therefore the more to be depended upon,) there could not have been
many persons who believed the doctrines of the pre-existence and divinity of Christ in the age of the apostles; one of the last books of the canon, viz, the Gospel of John, being the first in which those doctrines were clearly published.
If we look into the Gospels and the Book of Acts we shall find that one part of their testimony is true, viz. that those sublime doctrines, as they call them, were not taught in an early period; for none of the three first Gospels make the least mention of any thing in the person or nature of Christ superior to those of other men. In like manner, all the preaching of Christ, of which we have an account in the Book of Acts, is, that Jesus was the Messiah, whose divine mission was confirmed by miracles, especially that of his own
resurrection, and by the gifts of the Spirit. And all the controversies of which we find any account, either in that Book or in the Epistles, respected either the Jewish teachers who would have imposed the observance of the law of Moses upon all the Gentile converts, or else those who held the principles of the Gnostics.
The erroneous doctrines of these persons are distinctly marked, so that no person can read the New Testament without perceiving that there were persons who held these doctrines, and that they were the cause of great uneasiness to the apostles; but there is no trace of any other opinions at which they took the least umbrage.
As to the effect of the publication of John's Gospel, from which so much seems to have been expected by the Christian fathers, it is impossible that we should learn any thing concerning it in the New Testament, because that was one of the last of the books that was published. However, we have no account in ecclesiastical history that it produced any change at all in the sentiments of Christians. Though it is said to have taught a new and a sublime doctrine, it does not appear to have been received with any degree of surprise. There are no marks of the publication having given any peculiar pleasure to some, or alarm to others; or that it occasioned the least division among Christians on the subject.
We may, therefore, very safely conclude, that those Christians for whose use this Gospel was written, saw it in a very different light from those fathers who gave the preceding account of it. We know, indeed, that to them it did not appear to teach any other doctrine than what was contained in the three former Gospels; for by the logos of which John treats in this famous introduction, they never imagined to be meant Christ, and therefore they could see nothing of his personal pre-existence or divinity in it. In their opinion, the logos was that wisdom and power of God, by which all things were made.
Though this Gospel was written in Greek, there were not wanting among the Jewish Christians men of learning who would not have failed to give an account of it to their more ignorant countrymen, or to translate it for their use, if it bad been thought necessary. Yet, notwithstanding this, all the Jewish Christians continued in the very same state in which the Christian fathers represent them to have been before the publication of this Gospel, viz. believers in the simple humanity of Christ only, and acknowledging nothing of his