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HISTORICAL SKETCH, &c.
AT the time of Christ's appearance in the flesh, the great body of the Jewish doctors, as well as the common people, appear to have had very indistinct and inaccurate conceptions of the way in which salvation is to be attained by man. Instead of regarding the sacrifices offered up under the Jewish dispensation, as designed to direct their attention to Messiah, and fix their faith upon him, and as teaching them to found all their hopes of pardon upon his obedience and sufferings; they built their expectations of redemption, immediately upon the rigid observance of the precepts of the Mosaic ritual. Lest this might be somewhere deficient, they had recourse to another expedient. The Rabbins affirmed, that while Moses was in the Mount, God delivered to him, beside that law which was written out, a great number of precepts, to be delivered orally to Joshua, and the priests. They even taught, that these precepts were more holy than those which are contained in the written law. This they gave as the reason why Moses was prohibited from writing them. They were too sacred for the eyes of the vulgar. This oral law, the Rabbins declared, had been transmitted in all its original purity and perfection, from priest to priest, until it had reached themselves, who were then its venerable repositories. Hence it was called,“ the traditions of the elders.” By the doctors, it was detailed to the ignorant and deluded multitude. The duties which this law, clothed with such imaginary dignity, prescribed, were no more than a multitude of solemn trifles; such as to wash cups and platters, not to eat with unwashen hands, &c. A strict attention to these unmeaning and foolish ceremonies, was esteemed by these ignorant teachers and besotted people, of more importance, and more meritorious in the sight
of God, than the fulfilment of the great and solemn duties of religion and morality, enjoined in the law and the prophets. With this blind and unmeaning attention to things so insignificant, Christ reproaches the scribes and pharisees:* “ Woe unto you scribes, pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tythe of mint, and anise, and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. Ye blind guides, who strain at a gnat and swallow a camel. Woe unto you scribes, pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess." Christ also charges them with setting aside the law of God, by their blind devotion to this traditionary law. “Why do ye also transgress
f the commandment of God by your traditions.” “ Ye have made the commandment of God of none effect by your traditions.”
Labouring under such a blind attachment to the senseless commands of an ignorant and hypocritical priesthood, it is impossible they could have had any accurate views of that infinitely valuable atoning sacrifice of Christ, which was typically exhibited in the offering of the blood of bulls and of goats, and which was shortly to be offered up by the great high priest of our profession. It seems indeed that they were utterly ignorant of it. With this shameful ignorance Caiaphas, their own high priest, upbraids them. “ And one of them, named Caiaphas, being high priest that same year, said unto them, ye know nothing at all, nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.” Thus this priest, speaking by divine inspiration, not only reproved their ignorance, but instructed them in the nature and objects of the death of Christ. He was to die for Israel, that they might by his death, be freed from that destruction, which otherwise avenging justice would cause to fall upon them.
* Matt. xxiii. 23–25. Matt. xv. 3.6. John xi. 50.
Among these blind and carnal Jews, the opposition to the atonement, and pleading the value of good works, as meriting salvation, commenced. Among the instructions which Christ tendered to that degenerate and ungrateful people, the lessons which he delivered on the objects of his mission relative to the expiatory nature of his death and sufferings, and his reproofs calculated to turn them from their doctrinal and practical errors on this subject, hold a conspicuous place. But their obstinacy was immoveable; the darkness which enveloped their understandings tangible, and their ignorance invincible. All the salutary instructions which he gave them, they ignorantly or maliciously perverted. When he spoke of his death and resurrection, under the metaphor of throwing down and rebuilding a temple; they extracted out of this an accusation; they represented him as having proudly boasted, that were the Jewish temple thrown down, he would rebuild it in three days. The Apostles also directed their heaviest artillery against the strong holds in which the Jews had entrenched themselves, relative to the atonement. It appears that many of the Jewish converts, after they were proselyted to the faith of the gospel, still retained those false views, which, relative to the merit of good works, they had imbibed from the Jewish doctors. Some of these doctors, who embraced Jesus as the true Messiah, taught in Rome, about the middle of the first century, that good works were meritorious, that they ought to be depended upon for salvation. Their opinions on this subject, however, made very little progress among the gentile converts. Though the controversy was agitated with a degree of warmth proportioned to the importance of the subject in discussion, yet it appears to have been of short duration.
One grand object which the apostle Paul had in view, in the epistle to the Hebrews, was to remove the dangerous prejudices, which the Jewish proselytes had imbibed from their legal teachers, on this cardinal doctrine of the christian system; and to deliver a lucid view of the nature of Christ's priesthood; and to establish on an immoveable basis the glorious and consolatory truth of the atonement. So irresistible are the evidences which that apostle adduces, in favour of this doctrine, that Priestley, one of the most learned of the Socinian doctors of the last century, charges the author of the epistle to the Hebrews with inaccuracy, in his reasoning on the priestly office, and expiatory offering of Christ.
It was probably the epistle which this apostle wrote to the christians in Rome, that excited the Jewish Rabbins to enter the lists of controversy. On the insufficiency of our own good works, for our justification, nothing can be more decisive than the epistle to the Romans. There can be no doubt but that the influence which it had over the minds of the christians at Rome, prevented the legal doctrines of the Jewish doctors from spreading, and finally put an end to the controversy.
Those writers, who flourished in the church from the age of the apostles, till some time in the fifth century, have been denominated fathers. The distance at which we are placed from the times in which they wrote, our difficulty in pro, curing accurate information relative to the controversies which then disturbed the peace of the church, and our ignorance of the precise sense, at that time affixed to various words, used in those polemical discussions, render it, in some instances, almost impossible to ascertain with accuracy, their opinions on some of the most important doctrines of the christian system. It may also be added, that they often express their ideas with less perspicuity than we could wish. Hence it has happened that in many theological controversies of latter ages, each of the parties employed in managing these debates has attempted, and sometimes with the appearance of success, to entrench themselves behind the authori. ty of the ancient fathers. We are anxious to learn what opinions generally prevailed in those ages, which were so near the days of Christ, and his apostles; as we naturally and rationally think that the great body of christians, then, were less likely to fall into error, than those who are more remote from the tinies in which the founders of the christian church lived. But in addition to the difficulties before
enumerated, it ought not to be forgotten, that there are many articles of the christian religion, which the early fathers have scarcely touched upon in any of their works. Their passing over these doctrines in silence, or bestowing upon them no more than a passing notice, arose from the objects on which they employed their pens. They rarely or rather never attempted a systematic elucidation of the truths of the christian system. A great part of their labours were devoted to the defence of revealed religion against the impious attacks of infidels, who, at a very early period unmasked all their batteries against the Bible. Another field in which they signalised themselves, was that wherein they attacked, and triumphantly repelled the numerous errors, and heresies, that early invaded the church. In each of these conflicts they wielded the arms of truth with great effect, and acquired for themselves a title to the admiration of all succeeding ages. But it is manifest from the circumstances, which called forth their talents as writers, that when any article of their creed, was not assailed, a full display of their views on that article is not to be expected. After all, it would be strange, if they had attached to the doctrine of the atonement as much importance in the work of man's salvation, as the great body of modern protestant divines have done, and yet had passed it by in total silence. They have not done so. On the contrary, they have transmitted to us their most decisive testimony in favour of this great truth; and that in a voice loud enough, and in a language perspicuous enough, to be heard and understood, at this remote period; distant from them seventeen or eighteen hundred years.
Justin Martyr, in his dialogue with Trypho a Jew, when speaking of the death of Christ says: “ This is the laver of salvation which those who repent obtain; the sins of those who repent are not now expiated by the blood of goats and sheep, by the ashes of an heifer, nor by such oblations, but through faith, by the blood and death of Christ, who died