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At a time like the present, when a regard for Church principles is happily reviving amongst us, and leading many of the Laity as well as the Clergy to interest themselves in the study of Christian antiquities, it seems desirable to present to English readers the most important documents of the Ancient Church in their own language, and with such annotations as may be necessary for the understanding of the various matters contained in them.
The first place amongst these documents, both as regards interest and importance, is justly to be assigned to those which are contained in the present collection, and which come to us with the authority of the Universal Church, whilst it was still outwardly one and undivided. These documents are naturally to be divided into two classes ; the Definitions or Decrees respecting the faith established by the Ecumenical Councils, and the Canons of ecclesiastical discipline enacted or confirmed by them.
As regards the former class of documents, they are to be considered as the authoritative teaching of the Church upon the subjects to which they relate, and as such they have a well-founded claim to being received by all her members. Without pretending to carry the exemption of General Councils from possible error further than the Church of England carries it in the twenty-first Article, still no unreasonable or reflecting man can hesitate to acknowledge, that at least considerable authority is to be ascribed to such assemblies of the Church. It is indeed hardly conceivable that a truly General Council, assembled lawfully, and deliberating freely, and the decisions of which have been received and ratified by the consent. of the whole Church, should err in matters of faith, The number of Councils, however, which come up to the above description is very small, in fact there are not more than six which can be accounted truly Ecumenical, viz. those of Nice, A. D. 325; Constantinople, 381; Ephesus, 431 ; Chalcedon, 451; and the second and third of Constantinople, 553 and 680. Some theologians are disposed to acknowledge only the four first of these as distinctly Ecumenical, considering the fifth and sixth as supplemental to the third and fourth ; but in the more common enumeration all the six are accounted distinct and Ecumenical.
The Definitions of Faith published by these Councils have been always received by the Church as unquestionably true and authoritative, and any deviation from them has been condemned as heretical. To many persons, however, at the present day, when we are apt to
attach too little importance even to great differences in the faith, some of these Definitions, relating as they do especially to the mysterious doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation of our Lord, may appear too labored and subtile, and above the comprehension of common minds, and therefore they may be disposed to disregard them as unnecessary, or perhaps even to condemn them as presumptuous. But it ought to be remembered, that these labored explanations were not voluntary on the part of the Church, but were forced from her by the perverse ingenuity of heretics. The most ancient Creeds were short and simple ; and the enlarging of them is often spoken of in the decrees of the Councils, not as desirable in itself, but as rendered necessary by the attempts of heretics to introduce their pernicious novelties, which, though destructive of the true doctrine, were often so disguised as to deceive simple and unsuspecting souls. The Church therefore, to meet this evil, was compelled to enlarge her Creeds, and to render her definitions more precise and full; and having fearful examples of the danger of any concession on these subjects (as in the conduct of the Arians at Ariminum), she was obliged to attach great importance to what to careless observers might appear minute and almost imperceptible shades of difference. A very little acquaintance with the ancient heresies, which for the first six hundred years after Christ related chiefly to the ever-blessed Trinity, and to the a. Nature and Person of our Lord, will show, that there is hardly any, perhaps not one, expression in the longest of the Definitions of the Ecumenical Councils, which was
not directed against some particular heretical opinion, and the omission of which would not have been made use of by heretics to further their pernicious designs.
We are not at the present day much disturbed by the controversies which agitated the early Church, but this is not a proof that the heresies which occasioned those controversies do not still exist, for indeed it would perhaps be nearer the truth to say, that they prevail even to a greater extent at the present day than they did in -the Ancient Church. They are not, it is true, so openly proclaimed, but there are numbers of persons who do not doubt their own orthodoxy from never having had occasion to test it, who, if they were to examine their opinions seriously and rigidly, would find that they were unconsciously verging towards some ancient form of heresy, and especially upon those fundamental and sacred doctrines of the Gospel which form the subject-matter of the Definitions of the General Councils, the everblessed Trinity, and the Person of our Lord. It would be easy indeed to produce instances from writers of considerable reputation, in which they have unintentionally used expressions and made statements upon these subjects which would have drawn upon them the censures of the Ancient Church. The fact is, not that persons have become more orthodox, but more indifferent to strict orthodoxy. This is the natural and fatal consequence of the prevalence of what are called liberal opinions, which in matters of religion is too commonly another name for indifference, and often for scepticism and actual infidelity. It is also a natural consequence of that much
vaunted principle of private judgment, according to which it is the right and duty of all persons to exercise their own private judgment, independently of the authoritative teaching of the Church, in the study of the Scriptures, and to form from them their own opinions, even upon the highest and deepest mysteries of the Gospel. It is clear that if we claim this right for ourselves, we cannot consistently deny it to others; if we refuse to be accountable to any persons upon earth for our own creed, we cannot consistently find fault with the creed of others, however erroneous it may be. But further, if the principle be indeed true, that every man is authorized to form his own faith for himself upon his own view of the Scriptures, it follows that no heresy is sinful. The Socinian who concludes from them that our Lord is a mere man, and denies the Atonement, is as good a believer as the maintainer of our Lord's Divinity, and of our redemption through His blood. Nay we must go yet further, and acknowledge, that the man who in reading the Bible comes to the conclusion that it is a mere human fable and not the word of God, is no more to be condemned by those who receive it, than they are to be condemned by him who rejects it. It is impossible by any fair reasoning to stop short of this conclusion, however strongly we may deny it; and a serious and humbleminded Christian may therefore well shrink from maintaining, and still more from claiming to himself as a privilege, a principle which thus confounds all distinctions between truth and falsehood. It ought also to make us somewhat diffident in asserting this right of