Ante-Nicene Fathers/Volume V/Preface
This fifth volume will be found a work complete in itself, simplex et unum. At first, indeed, it might look otherwise. The formation of Latin Christianity in the school of North Africa seems interrupted by the interpolation, between Tertullian and his great pupil Cyprian, of a Western bishop and doctor, who writes in Greek. A little reflection, however, will suggest to the thoughtful student, that, even if our chronological plan admitted of it, we should divest the works of Cyprian of a very great advantage should we deprive them of the new and all-important light shed upon Cyprian and his conflicts with Stephen by the discovery of the Philosophumena of Hippolytus. That discovery, as Dr. Bunsen reminds us, more than once, has duplicated our information concerning the Western Church of the ante-Nicene period. It gives us overwhelming evidence on many points heretofore imperfectly understood, and confirms the surmises of the learned and candid authors who have endeavoured to disentangle certain complications of history. It meets some questions of our own day with most conclusive testimony, and probably had not a little to do with the ultimate conclusions of Döllinger, and the rise of the Old Catholic school, among the Latins. We cannot fail to observe in all this the hand of a wise and paternal Providence, which is never wanting to the faithful in the day of trial. “I believe, with Niebuhr,” says Dr. Bunsen, “that Providence always furnishes every generation with the necessary means of arriving at the truth and at the solution of its doubts.” This consideration has inspired me with great hopes from the publication of this series in America, where the aggressions of an alien element are forcing us to renewed study of that virgin antiquity which is so fatal to its pretensions. I can adopt with a grateful heart the language of Bunsen, when he adds: “I cannot help thinking it of importance that we have just now so unexpectedly got our knowledge of facts respecting early Christianity doubled.”
To show some tokens of this new light on old difficulties, I shall be obliged to throw one or two of my Elucidations almost into the form of dissertations. It will appear, as we proceed, that we have reached a most critical point in the ante-Nicene history, and one on which that period itself depends for its complete exposition. Let me adduce conclusive evidence of this by reference to two fundamental facts, which need only to be mentioned to be admitted:—
1. The Council of Nice did not pretend to be setting forth a new creed, or making anything doctrine which was not doctrine before. Hence the period we are now studying is to be interpreted by the testimony of the Nicene Fathers, who were able to state historically, and with great felicity, in idioms gradually framed by the Alexandrian theologians, the precise intent and purport of their teaching. The learned Bull has demonstrated this; demolishing alike the sophistry of Petavius the Jesuit, and the efforts of latitudinarians to make capital out of some of those obiter dicta of orthodox Fathers, which, like certain passages of Holy Scripture itself, may be wrested into contradictory and self-stultifying declarations. Note, therefore, that the Nicene Creed must be studied not so much in the controvertists of the fourth century as in the doctors of preceding ages, whom we are reviewing in these pages.
2. A like statement is true of the Nicene constitutions and discipline. The synodical rule, alike in faith and discipline, was Τὰ ἄρχαῖα ἔθη κρατέιτο: “Let the (ancient) primitive examples prevail.” Observe, therefore, what they ruled as to Rome and other churches was already ancient. Now, the “duplicated” light thrown upon the position of the North-African churches, and others in the West, at this period, by the discovery of long-lost portions of Hippolytus, will be found to settle many groundless assertions of Roman controvertists as to what these ἄρχαῖα ἔθη were.
Bearing this in mind, let us return to the point with which this Preface starts. We are pausing for a moment, in the North-African history, to take a contemporary survey of Rome, and to mark just where it stands, and what it is, at this moment. The earliest of the great Roman Fathers now comes forward, but not as a Latin Father. He writes in Greek; he continues the Greek line of thought brought into the West by Irenæus; he maintains the Johannean rather than the Petrine traditions and idioms, which are distinct but not clashing; he stands only in the third generation from St. John himself, through Polycarp, and his master Irenæus; and, like his master, he confronts the Roman bishops of his time with a superior orthodoxy and with an authority more apostolic. He illustrates in his own conduct the maxim of Irenæus, that “the Catholic faith is preserved in Rome by the testimony imported into it by those who visit it from every side;” that is, who thus keep alive in it the common faith, as witnessed in all the churches of Christendom.
Thus, Hippolytus, once “torn to pieces as by horses,” in his works, if not in his person, comes to life again in our times, to shed new light upon the history of Latin Christianity, and to show that Rome had no place nor hand in its creation. He appears as a Greek Father in a church which was yet a “Greek colony;” and he shows to what an estate of feebleness and humiliation the Roman Church had been brought, probably by the neglect of preaching, which is an anomaly in its history, and hardly less probably by its adherence to a Greek liturgy long after the Christians of Rome had ceased to understand Greek familiarly. At such a moment Hippolytus proves himself a reformer. His historical elucidations of the period, therefore, form an admirable introduction to Cyprian, and will explain the entire independence of Roman dictation, with which he maintained his own opinions against that Church and its bishops.
And lastly we have Novatian as a sequel to the works of Cyprian; and truly, the light upon his sad history is “duplicated” by what Hippolytus shows us of the times and circumstances which made his schism possible, and which somewhat relieve his character from its darker shades.
Such, then, is the volume now given to the reader,—Hippolytus, Cyprian, Novatian,—affording the fullest information ever yet brought together in one volume, upon the rise of Latin Christianity, the decline of the Greek period of the Roman See, and the restricted limits of the Roman province not yet elevated to the technical position of a Nicene patriarchate.
- Hippol., vol. i. p. 7. Ed. London, 1851.
- See this series, vol. iii. Elucid. II. p. 630.
- See this series, vol. i. pp. 309, 360; also vol. ii. p. 166, and Milman (vol. i. pp. 28, 29), Latin Christianity.