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Chapter XXIV.—Nepos and his Schism.23322332 Of this Egyptian bishop Nepos, we know only what is told us in this chapter. Upon chiliasm in the early Church, see above, Bk. III. chap. 39, note 19. It is interesting to note, that although chiliasm had long lost its hold wherever the philosophical theology of the third century had made itself felt, it still continued to maintain its sway in other parts of the Church, especially in outlying districts in the East, which were largely isolated from the great centers of thought, and in the greater part of the West. By such Christians it was looked upon, in fact, as the very kernel of Christianity,—they lived as most Christians of the second century had, in the constant hope of a speedy return of Christ to reign in power upon the earth. The gradual exclusion of this remnant of early Christian belief involved the same kind of consequences as the disappearance of the belief in the continued possession by the Church of the spirit of prophecy (see Bk. V. chap. 16, note 1), and marks another step in the progress of the Church from the peculiarly enthusiastic spirit of the first and second, to the more formal spirit of the third and following centuries. Compare the remarks of Harnack in his Dogmengeschichte, I. p. 482 sq. It seems, from §6, below, that Dionysius had engaged in an oral discussion of the doctrines taught in the book of Nepos, which had prevailed for a long time in Arsinoë, where the disputation was held. The best spirit was exhibited by both parties in the discussion, and the result was a decided victory for Dionysius. He was evidently afraid, however, that the book of Nepos, which was widely circulated, would still continue to do damage, and therefore he undertook to refute it in a work of his own, entitled On the Promises (see the next note). His work, like his disputation, undoubtedly had considerable effect, but chiliasm still prevailed in some of the outlying districts of Egypt for a number of generations.
1. Besides all these the two books on the Promises23332333 περὶ ἐπαγγελιῶν. This work, as we learn from §3, below, contained in the first book Dionysius’ own views on the subject under dispute, in the second a detailed discussion of the Apocalypse upon which Nepos based his chiliastic opinions. The work is no longer extant, though Eusebius gives extracts from the second book in this and in the next chapter; and three brief fragments have been preserved in a Vatican ms., and are published in the various editions of Dionysius’ works. The Eusebian extracts are translated in the Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. VI. p. 81–84. We have no means of ascertaining the date of Dionysius work. Hefele (Conciliengesch. I. p. 134), Dittrich (p. 69), and others, put the disputation at Arsinoë, in 254 or 255, and the composition of the work of Dionysius of course soon thereafter; but we have no authority for fixing the date of the disputation with such exactness, and must be content to leave it quite undetermined, though it is not improbable that it took place, as Dittrich maintains, between the persecutions of Decius and Valerian. In the preface to the eighteenth book of his commentary on Isaiah, Jerome speaks of a work of Dionysius, On the Promises (evidently referring to this same work), directed against Irenæus. In his de vir ill. 69, however, he follows Eusebius in stating that the work was written against Nepos. There can be no doubt on this score, and Jerome’s statement in his commentary seems to be a direct error. It is possible, however, that Irenæus, as the most illustrious representative of chiliastic views, may have been mentioned, and his positions refuted in the work, and thus Jerome have had some justification for his report. were prepared by him. The occasion of these was Nepos, a bishop in Egypt, who taught that the promises to the holy men in the Divine Scriptures should be understood in a more Jewish manner, and that there would be a certain millennium of bodily luxury upon this earth.
2. As he thought that he could establish his private opinion by the Revelation of John, he wrote a book on this subject, entitled Refutation of Allegorists.23342334 Evidently directed against Origen and other allegorical interpreters like him, who avoided the materialistic conceptions deduced by so many from the Apocalypse, by spiritualizing and allegorizing its language. This work of Nepos has entirely perished.
3. Dionysius opposes this in his books on the Promises. In the first he gives his own opinion of the dogma; and in the second he treats of the Revelation of John, and mentioning Nepos at the beginning, writes of him in this manner:
4. “But since they bring forward a certain work of Nepos, on which they rely confidently, as if it proved beyond dispute that there will be a reign of Christ upon earth, I confess that23352335 The words “I confess that” are not in the original, but the insertion of some clause of the kind is necessary to complete the sentence. in many other respects I approve and love Nepos, for his faith and industry and diligence in the Scriptures, and for his extensive psalmody,23362336 On early Christian hymnody, see above, Bk. V. chap. 28, note 14. with which many of the brethren are still delighted; and I hold him in the more reverence because he has gone to rest before us. But the truth should be loved and honored most of all. And while we should praise and approve ungrudgingly what is said aright, we ought to examine and correct what does not seem to have been written soundly.
5. Were he present to state his opinion orally, mere unwritten discussion, persuading and reconciling those who are opposed by question and answer, would be sufficient. But as some think his work very plausible, and as certain teachers regard the law and prophets as of no consequence, and do not follow the Gospels, and treat lightly the apostolic epistles, while they make promises23372337 “i.e. dire ante promittunt quam tradunt. The metaphor is taken from the mysteries of the Greeks, who were wont to promise great and marvelous discoveries to the initiated, and then kept them on the rack by daily expectation in order to confirm their judgment and reverence by suspense of knowledge, as Tertullian says in his book Against the Valentinians [chap. 1].” Valesius. as to the teaching of this work as if it were some great hidden mystery, and do not permit our simpler brethren to have any sublime and lofty thoughts concerning the glorious and truly divine appearing of our Lord, and our resurrection from the dead, and our being gathered together unto him, and made like him, but on the contrary lead them to hope for small and mortal things in the kingdom of God, and for things such as exist now,—since this is the case, it is necessary that we should dispute with our brother 309Nepos as if he were present.” Farther on he says:
6. “When I was in the district of Arsinoë,23382338 ἐν τῷ ᾽Αρσινοείτῃ. The Arsinoite nome or district (on the nomes of Egypt, see above, Bk. II. chap. 17, note 10) was situated on the western bank of the Nile, between the river and Lake Mœris, southwest of Memphis. where, as you know, this doctrine has prevailed for a long time, so that schisms and apostasies of entire churches have resulted, I called together the presbyters and teachers of the brethren in the villages,—such brethren as wished being also present,—and I exhorted them to make a public examination of this question.
7. Accordingly when they brought me this book, as if it were a weapon and fortress impregnable, sitting with them from morning till evening for three successive days, I endeavored to correct what was written in it.
8. And I rejoiced over the constancy, sincerity, docility, and intelligence of the brethren, as we considered in order and with moderation the questions and the difficulties and the points of agreement. And we abstained from defending in every manner and contentiously the opinions which we had once held, unless they appeared to be correct. Nor did we evade objections, but we endeavored as far as possible to hold to and confirm the things which lay before us, and if the reason given satisfied us, we were not ashamed to change our opinions and agree with others; but on the contrary, conscientiously and sincerely, and with hearts laid open before God, we accepted whatever was established by the proofs and teachings of the Holy Scriptures.
9. And finally the author and mover of this teaching, who was called Coracion,23392339 Of this Coracion, we know only what is told us here. in the hearing of all the brethren that were present, acknowledged and testified to us that he would no longer hold this opinion, nor discuss it, nor mention nor teach it, as he was fully convinced by the arguments against it. And some of the other brethren expressed their gratification at the conference, and at the spirit of conciliation and harmony which all had manifested.”
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