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Historical Sketches: Volumes 1 To 3 -Blessed John Henry Newman


VINCENTIUS wrote in the early part of the fifth century, that is, three good centuries and more after the death of St. John; accordingly, we sometimes hear it said that, true though it be, that the Catholic system, as we Anglicans maintain it, existed at that time, nevertheless it was a system quite foreign to the pure Gospel, though introduced at a very early age; a system of Pagan or Jewish origin, which crept in unawares, and was established on the ruins of the Apostolic faith by the episcopal confederation, which mainly depended on it for its own maintenance. In other words, it is considered by some persons to be a system of priestcraft, destructive of Christian liberty.

Now, it is no paradox to say that this would be a sufficient answer to such a speculation, were there no other, viz., that no answer can be made to it. I say, supposing it could not be answered at all, that fact would be a fair answer. All discussion must have data to go upon; without data, neither one party can dispute nor the other. If I maintained there were negroes in the moon, I should like to know how these same philosophers would answer me. Of course they would not attempt it: they would confess they had no grounds for denying it, only they would add, that I had no grounds for asserting it. They would not prove that I was wrong, but call upon me to prove that I was right. They would consider such a mode of talking idle and childish, and unworthy the consideration of a serious man; else, there would be no end of speculation, no hope of certainty and unanimity in anything. Is a man to be allowed to say what he will, and bring no reasons for it? Even if his hypothesis fitted into the facts of the case, still it would be but an hypothesis, and might be met, perhaps, in the course of time, by another hypothesis, presenting as satisfactory a solution of them. But if it would not be necessarily true, though it were adequate, much less is it entitled to consideration before it is proved to be adequate—before it is actually reconciled with the facts of the case; and when another hypothesis has, from the beginning, been in the possession of the field. From the first it has been believed that the Catholic system is Apostolic; convincing reasons must be brought against this belief, and in favour of another, before that other is to be preferred to it.

Now the new and gratuitous hypothesis in question does not appear, when examined, even to harmonize with the facts of the case. One mode of dealing with it is this:—Take a large view of the faith of Christians during the centuries before Constantine established their religion. Is there any family likeness in it to Protestantism? Look at it, as existing during that period in different countries, and is it not one and the same, and a reiteration of itself, as well as singularly unlike Reformed Christianity? Hermas with his visions, Ignatius with his dogmatism, Irenæus with his praise of tradition and of the Roman See, Clement with his allegory and mysticism, Cyprian with his “Out of the Church is no salvation,” and Methodius with his praise of Virginity, all of them writers between the first and fourth centuries, and witnesses of the faith of Rome, Africa, Gaul, Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt, certainly do not represent the opinions of Luther and Calvin. They stretch over the whole of Christendom; they are consistent with each other; they coalesce into one religion; but it is not the religion of the Reformation. When we ask, “Where was your Church before Luther?” Protestants answer, “Where were you this morning before you washed your face?” But, if Protestants can clean themselves into the likeness of Cyprian or Irenæus, they must scrub very hard, and have well-nigh learned the art of washing the blackamoor white.


If the Church system be not Apostolic, it must, some time or other, have been introduced, and then comes the question, when? We maintain that the known circumstances of the previous history are such as to preclude the possibility of any time being assigned, ever so close upon the Apostles, at which the Church system did not exist. Not only cannot a time be shown when the free-and-easy system now in fashion did generally exist, but no time can be shown in which it can be colourably maintained that the Church system was brought in. It will be said, of course, that the Church system was gradually introduced. I do not say there have never been introductions of any kind; but let us see what they amount to here. Select for yourself your doctrine, or your ordinance, which you say was introduced, and try to give the history of its introduction. Hypothetical that history will be, of course; but we will not scruple at that;—we will only ask one thing, that it should cut clean between the real facts of the case, though it bring none in its favour; but it will not be able to do even this. The rise of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, of the usage of baptizing infants, of the eucharistic offering, of the episcopal prerogatives, do what one will, can hardly be made short of Apostolical times. This is not the place to prove all this; but so fully is it felt to be so, by those who are determined not to admit these portions of Catholicism, that in their despair of drawing the line between the first and following centuries, they make up their minds to intrude into the first, and boldly pursue their supposed error into the very presence of some Apostle or Evangelist. Thus St. John is sometimes made the voluntary or involuntary originator of some portions of our creed. Dr. Priestley, I believe, conjectures that his amanuensis played him false, as regards his teaching upon the sacred doctrine which that philosopher opposed. Others take exceptions to St. Luke, because he tells us of the “handkerchiefs, or aprons,” which “were brought from St. Paul’s body” for the cure of diseases. Others have gone a step further, and have said, “Not Paul, but Jesus.” Infidel, Socinian, and Protestant, agree in assailing the Apostles, rather than submitting to the Church.


Let our Protestant friends go to what quarter of Christendom they will, let them hunt among heretics or schismatics, into Gnosticism outside the Church, or Arianism within it, still they will find no hint or vestige anywhere of that system which they are now pleased to call Scriptural. Granting that Catholicism be a corruption, is it possible that it should be a corruption springing up everywhere at once? Is it conceivable that at least no opponent should have retained any remnant of the system it supplanted?—that no tradition of primitive purity should remain in any part of Christendom?—that no protest, or controversy, should have been raised, as a monument against the victorious error? This argument, conclusive against modern Socinianism, is still more cogent and striking when directed against Puritanism. At least, there were divines in those early days who denied the sacred doctrine which Socinianism also disowns, though commonly they did not profess to do so on authority of tradition; but who ever heard of Erastians, Supralapsarians, Independents, Sacramentarians, and the like, before the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries? It would be too bold to go to prove a negative: I can only say that I do not know in what quarter to search for the representatives, in the early Church, of that “Bible religion,” as it is called, which is now so much in favour. At first sight, one is tempted to say that all errors come over and over again; that this and that notion now in vogue has been refuted in times past. This is indeed a general truth—nay, for what I know, these same bold speculatists will bring it even as an argument for their not being in error, that Antiquity says nothing at all, good or bad, about their opinions. I cannot answer for the extent to which they will throw the onus probandi on us; but I protest—be it for us, or be it against us—I cannot find this very religion of theirs in ancient times, whether in friend or foe, Jew or Pagan, Montanist or Novatian; though I find surely enough, and in plenty, the general characteristics, which are conspicuous in their philosophy, of self-will, eccentricity, and love of paradox.

So far from it, that if we wish to find the rudiments of the Catholic system clearly laid down in writing, those who are accounted least orthodox will prove as liberal in their information about it as the strictest Churchman. We can endure even the heretics better than our opponents can endure the Apostles. Tertullian, though a Montanist, gives no sort of encouragement to the so-called Bible Christians of this day; rather he would be the object of their decided abhorrence and disgust. Origen is not a whit more of a Protestant, though he, if any, ought, from the circumstances of his history, to be a witness against us. It is averred that the alleged revolution of doctrine and ritual was introduced by the influence of the episcopal system; well, here is a victim of episcopacy, brought forward by our opponents as such. Here is a man who was persecuted by his bishop, and driven out of his country; and whose name after his death has been dishonourably mentioned, both by Councils and Fathers. He surely was not in the episcopal conspiracy, at least; and perchance may give the latitudinarian, the anabaptist, the Erastian, and the utilitarian, some countenance. Far from it; he is as high and as keen, as removed from softness and mawkishness, as ascetic and as reverential, as any bishop among them. He is as superstitious (as men now talk), as fanatical, as formal, as Athanasius or Augustine. Certainly, there seems something providential in the place which Origen holds in the early Church, considering the direction which theories about it are now taking; and much might be said on that subject.

Take another instance:—There was, in the fourth century, a party of divines who were ecclesiastically opposed to the line of theologians, whose principles had been, and were afterwards, dominant in the Church, such as Athanasius, Jerome, and Epiphanius; I mean, for instance, Eusebius, Cyril of Jerusalem, and others who were more or less connected with the Semi-Arians. If, then, we see that in all points, as regards the sacraments and sacramentals, the Church and its ministers, the form of worship, and other religious duties of Christians, Eusebius and Cyril agree entirely with the most orthodox of their contemporaries, with those by party and country most separated from them, we have a proof that that system, whatever it turns out to be, was received before their time—i.e. before the establishment of Christianity under Constantine; in other words, that we must look for the gradual corruption of the Church, if it is to be found, not when wealth pampered it, and power and peace brought its distant portions together, but while it was yet poor, humble, and persecuted, in those times which are commonly considered pure and primitive. Again, the genius of Arianism, as a party and a doctrine, was to discard antiquity and mystery; that is, to resist and expose what is commonly called priestcraft. In proportion, then, as Cyril and Eusebius partook of that spirit, so far would they be in their own cast of mind indisposed to the Catholic system, both considered in itself and as being imposed on them.

Now, have the writers in question any leaning or tenderness for the theology of Luther and Calvin? rather they are as unconscious of its existence as of modern chemistry or astronomy. That faith is a closing with divine mercy, not a submission to a divine announcement, that justification and sanctification are distinct, that good works do not benefit the Christian, that the Church is not Christ’s ordinance and instrument, and that heresy and dissent are not necessarily and intrinsically evil: notions such as these they do not oppose, simply because to all appearance they never heard of them. To take a single passage, which first occurs, in which Eusebius, one of the theologians in question, gives us his notion of the Catholic Church:—

“These attempts,” he says, speaking of the arts of the enemy, “did not long avail him, Truth ever consolidating itself, and, as time went on, shining into broader day. For while the devices of adversaries were extinguished at once, confuted by their very activity,—one heresy after another presenting its own novelty, the former specimens ever dissolving and wasting variously in manifold and multiform shapes,—the brightness of the Catholic and only true Church went forward increasing and enlarging, yet ever in the same things and in the same way, beaming on the whole race of Greeks and barbarians with the awfulness, and simplicity, and nobleness, and sobriety, and purity of its divine polity and philosophy. Thus the calumny against our whole creed died with its day, and there continued alone our discipline, sovereign among all, and acknowledged to be pre-eminent in awfulness and sobriety, in its divine and philosophical doctrines; so that no one of this day dares to cast any base reproach upon our faith, nor any such calumny such as it was once customary for our enemies to use.”—Hist. iv. 7.

Or to take a passage on a different subject, which almost comes first to hand, from St. Cyril, another of this school of divines:—

“Only be of good cheer, only work, only strive cheerfully; for nothing is lost. Every prayer of thine, every psalm thou singest is recorded; every alms-deed, every fast is recorded; every marriage duly observed is recorded; continence kept for God’s sake is recorded; but the first crowns in record are those of virginity and purity; and thou shalt shine as an Angel. But as thou hast gladly listened to the good things, listen without shrinking to the contrary. Every covetous deed of thine is recorded; every fleshly deed, every perjury, every blasphemy, every sorcery, every theft, every murder. All these things are henceforth recorded, if thou do these after baptism; for thy former deeds are blotted out.”—Cat. xv. 23.

Cyril and Eusebius, I conceive, do not serve at all better than Origen to show that faith is a feeling, that it makes a man independent of the Church, and is efficacious apart from baptism or works. I do not know any ancient divines of whom more can be made.


Where, then, is primitive Protestantism to be found? There is one chance for it, not in the second and third centuries, but in the fourth; I mean in the history of Aerius, Jovinian, and Vigilantius,—men who may be called, by some sort of analogy, the Luther, Calvin, and Zwingle, of the fourth century. And they have been so considered both by Protestants and by their opponents; so covetous, after all, of precedent are innovators, so prepared are Catholics to believe that there is nothing new under the sun. Let me, then, briefly state the history and tenets of these three religionists.

1. Aerius was an intimate friend of Eustathius, bishop of Sebaste, in Armenia, whose name has already occurred above. Both had embraced a monastic life; and both were Arians in creed. Eustathius, being raised to the episcopate, ordained his friend presbyter, and set him over the almshouse or hospital of the see. A quarrel followed, from whatever cause; Aerius left his post, and accused Eustathius of covetousness, as it would appear, unjustly. Next he collected a large number of persons of both sexes in the open country, where they braved the severe weather of that climate. A congregation implies a creed, and Aerius founded or formed his own on the following points: 1. That there was no difference between bishop and presbyter. 2. That it was judaical to observe Easter, because Christ is our Passover. 3. That it was useless, or rather mischievous, to name the dead in prayer, or to give alms for them. 4. That fasting was judaical, and a yoke of bondage. If it be right to fast, he added, each should choose his own day; for instance, Sunday rather than Wednesday and Friday: while Passion Week he spent in feasting and merriment. And this is pretty nearly all we know of Aerius, who flourished between A.D. 360 and 370.

2. Jovinian was a Roman monk, and was condemned, first by Siricius at Rome, then by St. Ambrose and other bishops at Milan, about A.D. 390. He taught, 1. That eating with thanksgiving was just as good as fasting. 2. That, cæteris paribus, celibacy, widowhood, and marriage, were on a level in the baptized. 3. That there was no difference of rewards hereafter for those who had preserved their baptism; and, 4. That those who had been baptized with full faith could not fall; if they did, they had been baptized, like Simon Magus, only with water. He persuaded persons of both sexes at Rome, who had for years led a single life, to desert it. The Emperor Honorius had him transported to an island on the coast of Dalmatia; he died in the beginning of the fifth century.

3. Vigilantius was a priest of Gaul or Spain, and flourished just at the time Jovinian died: he taught, 1. That those who reverenced relics were idolaters; 2. That continence and celibacy were wrong, as leading to the worst scandals; 3. That lighting candles in churches during the day, in honour of the martyrs, was wrong, as being a heathen rite; 4. That Apostles and Martyrs had no presence at their tombs; 5. That it was useless to pray for the dead; 6. That it was better to keep wealth and practice habitual charity, than to strip one’s-self of one’s property once for all; and 7. That it was wrong to retire into the desert. This is what we learn of these three (so-called) reformers, from the writings of Epiphanius and Jerome.

Now you may say, “What can we require more than this? Here we have, at the time of a great catastrophe, Scriptural truth come down to us in the burning matter which melted and preserved it, in the persecuting language of Epiphanius and Jerome. When corruptions began to press themselves on the notice of Christians, here you find three witnesses raising their distinct and solemn protest in different parts of the Church, independently of each other, in Gaul, in Italy, and in Asia Minor, against prayers for the dead, veneration of relics, candles in the day-time, the merit of celibacy, the need of fasting, the observance of days, difference in future rewards, the defectibility of the regenerate, and the divine origin of episcopacy. Here is pure and scriptural “Protestantism.” Such is the phenomenon on which a few remarks are now to be offered.


1. I observe then, first, that this case so presented to us, does not answer the purpose required. The doctrine of these three Protestants, if I am to be forced into calling them so, is, after all, but negative. We know what they protested against, not what they protested for. We do not know what the system of doctrine and ritual was which they substituted for the Catholic, or whether they had any such. Though they differed from the ancients, there is no proof that they agreed with the moderns. Parties which differ from a common third, do not necessarily agree with each other; from two negative propositions nothing is inferred. For instance, the moral temper and doctrinal character of the sixteenth century is best symbolized by its views about faith and justification, to which I have already referred, and upon the duty of each individual man drawing his own creed from the Scriptures. This is its positive shape, as far as it may be considered positive at all. Now does any one mean to maintain that Aerius, Jovinian, or Vigilantius, held justification by faith only in the sense of John Wesley, or of John Newton? Did they consider that baptism was a thing of nought; that faith did everything; that faith was trust, and the perfection of faith assurance; that it consisted in believing that “I am pardoned;” and that works might be left to themselves, to come as they might, as being necessary fruits of faith, without our trouble? Did they know anything of the “apprehensive” power of faith, or of man’s proneness to consider his imperfect services, done in and by grace, as adequate to purchase eternal life? There is no proof they did. Let then these three protesters be ever so cogent an argument against the Catholic creed, this does not bring them a whit nearer to the Protestant; though in fact there is nothing to show that their protest was founded on historical grounds, or on any argument deeper than such existing instances of superstition and scandal in detail as are sure to accumulate round revelation.

Further, even if a modern wished, he would not be able to put up with even the negative creed of these primitive protesters, whatever his particular persuasion might be. Their protest suits no sect whatever of this day. It is either too narrow or too liberal. The Episcopalian, as he is styled, will not go along with Aerius’s notions about bishops; nor will the Lutheran subscribe to the final perseverance of the saints; nor will the strict Calvinist allow that all fasting is judaical; nor will the Baptist admit the efficacy of baptism: one man will wonder why none of the three protested against the existence of the Church itself; another that none of them denied the received doctrine of penance; a third that all three let pass the received doctrine of the Eucharist. Their protestations are either too much or too little for any one of their present admirers. There is no one of any of the denominations of this day but will think them wrong in some points or other; that is all we know about them; but if we all think them wrong on some points, is that a good reason why we should take them as an authority on others?

Or, again, do we wish to fix upon what can be detected in their creed of a positive character, and distinct from their protests? We happen to be told what it was in the case of one of them. Aerius was an Arian; does this mend matters? Is there any agreement at all between him and Luther here? If Aerius is an authority against bishops, or against set fasts, why is he not an authority against the Creed of St. Athanasius?

2. What has been last said leads to a further remark. I observe, then, that if two or three men in the fourth century are sufficient, against the general voice of the Church, to disprove one doctrine, then still more are two or three of an earlier century able to disprove another. Why should protesters in century four be more entitled to a hearing than protesters in century three? Now it so happens, that as Aerius, Jovinian, and Vigilantius in the fourth protested against austerities, so did Praxeas, Noetus, and Sabellius in the third protest against the Catholic or Athanasian doctrine of the Holy Trinity. A much stronger case surely could be made out in favour of the latter protest than of the former. Noetus was of Asia Minor, Praxeas taught in Rome, Sabellius in Africa. Nay, we read that in the latter country their doctrine prevailed among the common people, then and at an earlier date, to a very great extent, and that the true faith was hardly preached in the churches.

3. Again, the only value of the protest of these three men would be, of course, that they represented others; that they were exponents of a state of opinion which prevailed either in their day or before them, and which was in the way to be overpowered by the popular corruptions. What are Aerius and Jovinian to me as individuals? They are worth nothing, unless they can be considered as organs and witnesses of an expiring cause. Now, it does not appear that they themselves had any notion that they were speaking in behalf of any one, living or dead, besides themselves. They argued against prayers for the departed from reason, and against celibacy, hopeless as the case might seem, from Scripture. They ridiculed one usage, and showed the ill consequence of another. All this might be very cogent in itself, but it was the conduct of men who stood by themselves and were conscious of it. If Jovinian had known of writers of the second and third centuries holding the same views, Jovinian would have been as prompt to quote them as Lutherans are to quote Jovinian. The protest of these men shows that certain usages undeniably existed in the fourth century; it does not prove that they did not exist also in the first, second, and third. And how does the fact of their living in the fourth century prove there were Protestants in the first? What we are looking for is a Church of primitive heretics, of baptists and independents of the Apostolic age, and we must not be put off with the dark and fallible protests of the Nicene era.

Far different is the tone of Epiphanius in his answer to Aerius:—

“If one need refer,” he says, speaking of fasting, “to the constitution of the Apostles, why did they there determine the fourth and sixth day to be ever a fast, except Pentecost? and concerning the six days of the Pascha, why do they order us to take nothing at all but bread, salt, and water?… Which of these parties is the rather correct? this deceived man, who is now among us, and is still alive, or they who were witnesses before us, possessing before our time the tradition in the Church, and they having received it from their fathers, and those very fathers again having learned it from those who lived before them?… The Church has received it, and it is unanimously confessed in the whole world, before Aerius and Aerians were born.”—Hær. 75, § 6.

4. Once more, there is this very observable fact in the case of each of the three, that their respective protests seem to have arisen from some personal motive. Certainly what happens to a man’s self often brings a thing home to his mind more forcibly, makes him contemplate it steadily, and leads to a successful investigation into its merits. Yet still, where we know personal feelings to exist in the maintenance of any doctrine, we look more narrowly at the proof for ourselves; thinking it not impossible that the parties may have made up their minds on grounds short of reason. It is natural to feel distrust of controversialists, who, to all appearance, would not have been earnest against a doctrine or practice, except that it galled themselves. Now it so happens that each of these three Reformers lies open to this imputation. Aerius is expressly declared by Epiphanius to have been Eustathius’s competitor for the see of Sebaste, and to have been disgusted at failing. He is the preacher against bishops. Jovinian was bound by a monastic vow, and he protests against fasting and coarse raiment. Vigilantius was a priest; and, therefore, he disapproves the celibacy of the clergy. No opinion at all is here ventured in favour of clerical celibacy; still it is remarkable that in the latter, as in the two former cases, private feeling and public protest should have gone together.


These distinct considerations are surely quite sufficient to take away our interest in these three Reformers. These men are not an historical clue to a lost primitive creed, more than Origen or Tertullian; and much less do they afford any support to the creed of those moderns who would fain shelter themselves behind them. That there were abuses in the Church then, as at all times, no one, I suppose, will deny. There may have been extreme opinions and extreme acts, pride and pomp in certain bishops, over-honour paid to saints, fraud in the production of relics, extravagance in praising celibacy, formality in fasting; and such errors would justify a protest, which the Catholic Fathers themselves are not slow to make; but they would not justify that utter reprobation of relics, of celibacy, and of fasting, of episcopacy, of prayers for the dead, and of the doctrine of defectibility, which these men avowed—avowed without the warrant of the first ages—on grounds of private reason, under the influence of personal feeling, and with the accompaniment of but a suspicious orthodoxy. It does certainly look as if our search after Protestantism in Antiquity would turn out a simple failure;—whatever Primitive Christianity was or was not, it was not the religion of Luther. I shall think so, until I find Ignatius and Aerius, in spite of their differences about bishops, agreeing in his doctrine of justification; until Irenæus and Jovinian, though at daggers drawn about baptism, shall yet declare Scripture to be the sole rule of faith; until Cyprian and Vigilantius, however at variance about the merit of virginity, uphold in common the sacred right and duty of private judgment.

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