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CONFESSIONS OF ST. AUGUSTINE.
The general objects of the “ Library of the Fathers," have been already summarily stated. It may however be well, before entering on the particular work with which the series is commenced, to make a few observations with reference to such misapprehensions, or errors, as are not unlikely to arise. For though certainly it should seem, that the writings of men, ever venerated by the Church on whom they were bestowed, ought to be received with thankfulness; yet, in the present state of things, some will perhaps rather be suspicious of the gift, through want of familiarity with the Fathers themselves, and the principles of our Church, with regard to their value. A few words then may here be said, for the sake of such as are honestly in doubt on the subject. More will be avoided, lest we should seem to wish to be heard ourselves, when our only wish is to obtain a hearing for those ancient witnesses of Catholic truth, and ourselves also to listen to them. At the same time, it must be said in the outset, that "authority" is not put forth as the use of the Fathers; it is dwelt upon thus prominently, only because it is an use, about which many misapprehensions exist.
These misconceptions may be referred to three heads. 1. The amount of authority claimed: 2. For whom : and, 3. For what that authority is claimed. For it seems by some to be thought, that, 1. The authority of the Fathers will interfere with the paramount authority of Holy Scripture. 2. That it
a Prospectus. See end of the vol.
involves ascribing undue authority to men fallible like ourselves, and exalting the dicta of one or the other Father, which may be erroneous. 3. That the appeal to the Fathers entails a disparagement of the authority of our own Church, and innovations upon her discipline or doctrine.
. They, who so think, are of course right to be jealous for these things,—if only they be careful that they are jealous for the authority of Holy Scripture and of our Church, not for their own constructions of either ;-every Churchman should be careful that he place not any private authority, whether of ancient or modern, Father or recent teacher, domestic authority or foreign, Churchman or Sectarian, above that of his Church, or put any human authority on a par with Holy Scripture. Our Church, however, once, solemnly met, did ascribe considerable authority to the Fathers, and it will be plain, both from the circumstances, and from the tenor of the words which she used, that she therein neither derogated from her own legitimate authority, nor from the supreme authority of Holy Scripture. It is plain from the circumstances, because it was the act of the Convocation of A.D. 1571, the same Convocation, which enforced Subscription to our Articles,an act certainly evidencing their sense of the power of a particular Church, and one involving the claim of considerable authority; and those Articles decidedly recognizing Holy Scripture, as the sole ultimate source of authority. In this very Convocation, in which she exerted her own authority, she secured also the legitimate authority of the Fathers. She then enacted,
CLERGY SHALL BE CAREFUL NEVER TO TEACH ANY THING FROM THE PULPIT, TO BE RELIGIOUSLY HELD AND BELIEVED BY THE PEOPLE, BUT WHAT IS AGREEABLE TO THE DOCTRINE OF THE OLD OR NEW TESTAMENT, AND COLLECTED OUT OF THAT SAME DOCTRINE BY THE CATHOLIC FATHERS, AND ANCIENT BISHOPS.
Thus at the same time that she was, by enforcing subscription to the Articles, fencing herself round, as a particular
Church, she formally maintained her connection with the Church Catholic, and made provision that her Ministers should not narrow her teaching, but retain it as co-extensive with that of the Universal Church.
The very language of this Canon itself shews, that the rightful authority of the Fathers interferes neither with that of Holy Scripture, nor with her own.
First then, there is no semblance of “contrasting Scripture and the Fathers, as coordinate authority.” Scripture is reverenced as paramount; the “ doctrine of the Old or New Testament” is the source; the “ Catholic Fathers and ancient Bishops” have but the office of “ collecting out of that same doctrine;" the Old and New Testaments are the fountain ; the Catholic Fathers, the channel, through which it has flowed down to us. The contrast, then, in point of authority, is not between Holy Scripture and the Fathers, but between the Fathers and us; not between the Book interpreted and the interpreters, but between one class of interpreters and another; between ancient Catholic truth and modern private opinions ; not between the word of God and the word of man, but between varying modes of understanding the word of God. Scripture is the depositary of the will of our Heavenly Father, His will, His covenant; but since every thing conveyed in the language of men will be liable to be by men differently interpreted, it would, of course, be a merciful provision of Almighty God, if He has been pleased to give us, within certain limits, rules for understanding that word. Now any one would acknowledge, in any man's testament, that if the father, when yet with his children, had explained to them the meaning of his testament, (whether formally reading it to them, or conveying to them its substance in other words,) such an exposition would be of great authority in ascertaining the meaning of the general tenor of that testament, or of any portion of it which might otherwise seem capable of two interpretations. And if such children, when their father was no longer present here, were, when asked, without any wrong bias, to explain
such will in one and the same way, and to declare that their father had told them that it was so to be understood, we should yield unhesitating assent to this testimony. Nor again would our value for that testimony be weakened, if, instead of the immediate children, the children's children should be the witnesses, especially had they been separated from each other in different countries, yet all agreed in the meaning which they had learnt from their several parents was to be attached to the will of their common father. All such illustrations as this must indeed fall short of the truth, because such reference to the things of men can furnish no adequate parallel to those of God. Thus, this illustration omits, that Holy Scripture is not a formal document, written for the purpose of conveying systematic, precise, statements; or, again, that God did not leave the meaning of His word to be collected any how, or ever did employ it without living guardians and expounders, and the like. It suffices, however, for the purpose for which it is here used. It gives an instance, how in the case of such agreement as to the meaning of a document, no one would doubt about it; (the testimony of the sons of Jonadab, the son of Rechab, was valid testimony as to that which their father commanded them;) nor, in the case of a written document, would any one say that these witnesses were regarded as equal in authority to that to whose meaning they bore testimony, since the very fact of appealing to, and expounding an original document, implies that it is the ultimate source of authority; it is not, as men say, its independence, but ours, which is denied; it is the independent source of authority; but we, to be satisfied of its meaning, are not independent, (as some would wish to be,) but depend upon the testimony of others. These points then are plain; 1. The paramount authority of the document appealed to. 2. The authority of concurring testimony to its meaning, if it is to be had from those to whom its meaning was originally explained, or their descendants. Now this is just what is claimed by our Church for the Fathers, i. e. for the ancient Church, in what
ever way its testimony is to be collected; whether they had themselves occasion to deposit it once for all, as at the General Councils (truly so called), or whether, though not collected by themselves, it is still capable of being collected from them. They are witnesses, and in whatever cases agreement is to be had, they are valid witnesses, as to the sense in which God willed His Scripture to be understood. Thus, we are assured at once, without further scruple, that the Nicene Creed contains the Scriptural Doctrine of the Holy Trinity, not only in case any can prove it to themselves to be such, (for as to some of its Articles many might find much difficulty in so doing,) but because we have the witness of the whole Church that it is so. We believe that it may be proved by most certain warrant of Holy Scripture,” (Art. VIII.) because it was so proved, and the Church Universal bore witness that such was the meaning of Holy Scripture on these awful truths, and that such was the interpretation which they had received from their fathers, and so from the Apostles. It is our privilege, that questions so decided are closed—not against us, but for us—or, if we so will, for us against ourselves. We have ground to be satisfied that the results so gained are true, and may benefit by them, without the labour of further questioning. We are satisfied to “ receive them as agreeable to the Doctrine of the Old and New Testaments," even because “ the Catholic Fathers and ancient Bishops have gathered it out of that very Doctrine,” for us as well as for themselves. The Fathers, then, are not, as some mistakenly suppose, equalled, much less preferred, to Holy Scripture, but only to ourselves, i. e. the ancient to the modern, the waters near the fountain to the troubled æstuary rolled backward and forward by the varying tide of human opinion, and rendered brackish by the continued contact with the bitter waters of this world, unity to disunion, the knowledge of the near successors of the Apostles to that of these latter times. The same will be the case as to any
other truths, o taneous to the Doctrine of the Old and New Testament,”