Home page The Occident and American Jewish Advocate Jews in the Civil War Jews in the Wild West History of Palestine The Occident Virtual Library


Dias' Letters.

(Continued from Issue #8)

Letter 5.

Our next inquiry is, first, who were the persons that met in council to establish a new canon? And secondly, what authority they had for so doing.*

* The Council of Laodicea was the first that established the new canon; it met towards the end of the fourth century.

As to the first question, they plainly appear to have been a set of men entirely unqualified for such an undertaking; for from the best authority we may collect, that a majority in these councils was always formed by faction and intrigue; that the members were led by interest, prejudice, and passion; and that they were contentious, ambitious, ignorant, and wicked. The judicious Mr. Chandler gives such a character of the Fathers, such a description of all general councils, as must be very convincing how improper they were, and what little authority their determinations ought to have. I shall therefore transcribe a few passages from him:

As to the Fathers says he, "It is infinite, it is endless labour to consult all that the Fathers have written; and when we have consulted them, what one controversy have they rationally decided? How few texts of Scripture have they critically settled the sense and meaning of? how often do they differ from one another, and in how many instances from themselves? Those who read them, greatly differ in their interpretation of them, and men of the most contrary sentiments all claim them for their own. Athanasians and Arians, all appeal to the Fathers; and support their principles by quotations from them. And are these the venerable gentlemen, whose writings are to be set up in opposition to the Scriptures? are creeds of their dictating to be submitted to as the only criterion of orthodoxy? or esteemed as standards to distinguish between truth and error? Away with this folly and superstition! the creeds of the Fathers and Councils are but human creeds; that have marks in them of human frailty and ignorance."*

* Introduction to History of the Inquisition, p. 111.

Another eminent person declares himself thus: "The Fathers, you say, whom you regard as the propagators of the Christian religion, must necessarily have been men of true piety and knowledge; but it has been maintained and proved to you by a great number of instances, that the Fathers have not only fallen into very gross errors, and been most profoundly ignorant of many things which they ought to have known; but farther, that most of them have more or less suffered themselves to be led by passion; so that their conduct has been found frequently to be such as is neither regular nor justifiable." Again, "In the first ages of Christianity, and those that followed after, the men most applauded, and who bore the greatest character in the church, were not always those that had the greatest share of good sense; or were the most eminent for learning and virtue."*

* Barbeyr. Hist. and Critical Account of the Science of Morality, chap. x. See the whole chapter, as likewise the 9th.

As to general councils, "I think it will evidently follow from this account," says Mr. Chandler, "that the determinations of councils and decrees of synods as to matters of faith are of no manner of authority, and carry no obligation upon any Christian whatsoever. I will mention here one reason, which will be itself sufficient if all others were wanting; viz., that they have no power given them in any part of the gospel revelations, to make these decisions in controverted points, and to oblige others to subscribe to them; and that therefore the pretence to it is an usurpation of what belongs to the great God, who only hath and can have a right to prescribe to the conscience of men. But to let this pass, what one council can be fixed upon that will appear to be composed of such persons, as upon impartial examination can allowed to be fit for the work of settling the faith, and determining all controversies relating to it? I mean, in which the majority of the members may in charity be supposed to be disinterested, wise, learned, peaceable and pious men? Will any man undertake to affirm this of the Council of Nice? Can any thing be more evident, than that the members of that venerable assembly came, many of them, full of passion and resentment; and others of them were crafty and wicked; and others ignorant and weak? Did their meeting together in a synod immediately cure them of their desire of revenge, make the wicked virtuous or the ignorant wise? If not, their joint decree as a synod could really be of no more weight than their private opinions, nor perhaps of so much; because it is well known that the great transactions of such an assembly are generally managed and conducted by a few; and, that authority, persecution, prospect of interest, and other temporal motives; are commonly made use of to secure a majority. The second general council were plainly the creatures of the Emperor Theodosius, all of his party, and convened to do as he bid them. The third general council were the creatures of Cyril, who was their president, and the inveterate enemy of Nestorius, whom he condemned for heresy, and was himself condemned for rashness in this affair. The fourth met under the awe of the Emperor Marcian, managed their debates with noise and tumult; were formed into a majority by the intrigues of the Legates of Rome, and settled the faith by the opinions of Athanasius, Cyril, and others. I need not mention more; the further they go the worse they will appear. As their decision in matters of faith were arbitrary and unwarranted, and as the decisions themselves were generally owing to court practices, intriguing statesmen, the thirst for revenge, the management of a few crafty interested bishops, to noise and tumult, the prospects and hopes of promotions and translations, and other like causes, the reverence paid them by many Christians is truly surprising."*

* Introduction to Hist. Of Inquisition, sec. iii. p. 100 to 102.

"All the world saw," (says M. Barbeyrac, who quotes an author who cannot be suspected of any ill-will towards the Fathers,) "the dreadful cruelties that were committed in these unhappy centuries: they maintained sieges in their monasteries; they battled in their councils; they treated with the utmost cruelty all whom they but suspected to favour opinions, which too often proved to be such as nobody understood, not even those that defended them with the greatest zeal and obstinacy." "These," says he, "are the great lights of the church! these are the holy Fathers whom we must take for men of true piety and knowledge!"*

* Historical Acc. Of the Science of Morality, sec. x.

"One council," says another historian, "was summoned to annul what another had done, and all things were managed with that faction, strife and contention, as if they laboured to quench the spirit of meekness and brotherly love, so often recommended in the gospel. Some were banished, some were imprisoned, and against others they proceeded with more severity, even to the loss of their lives."*

* Echard, Rom. Hist. Vol. iii. P. 57.

As to the second inquiry, "What authority they had to establish a new canon?" I should say that no other appears to me but their own; which, considering what sort of men they were, will never be allowed to be any authority at all; they produced none from Jesus, none from the apostles, neither had they any given but those very writings. They had no criterion by which they could distinguish among the variety of books that were then in the world under the name of the apostles, (if any were truly theirs,) which were so, and which not: and we do not hear a word of the least pretensions to any extraordinary assistance or revelation to this council from God; so that the authority which they imposed on these writings appears to have been entirely accidental, and to have depended upon their having a majority in their favour. This, I think, is most that can be said of them, and the same might or would have befallen any of those writings which were rejected as spurious, had the majority of the council consisted of a contrary party; but what authority the opinion of the majority of any council, acting under the influence and motives before mentioned, can have, is what every person must determine for himself.

(To be continued.)