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THE TESTIMONY OF HERETICS AND HEATHEN DURING THE SECOND CENTURY.
Our observations so far have almost entirely been confined to the writings of those men whom the church of the second century regarded as pillars of the faith. During the same period, however, there sprang up a literature of heretical and erroneous teachers, which, like grafts of a wild tree, threw up a rank luxuriance of strange doctrine. We can produce satisfactory testimony even from writings of this kind, that about the middle, and before the middle, of the second century, our gospels were held in the highest esteem by the church. This branch of our inquiry is as interesting on account of the insight it gives us into the opinions of these erroneous teachers as it is important on account of the information it gives us on the age and authority of our gospels. In appealing to these false teachers as testimony to the truth of the 76gospels, we follow no less a precedent than Irenæus, the well-known bishop of Lyons, to whom we have already referred. Irenæus makes the observation, “So well established are our gospels, that even teachers of error themselves bear testimony to them; even they rest their objections on the foundation of the gospels.” Adv. Hær. III., 11, 7.
This is the judgment which the last half of the second century passes on the first half; and this first half of the second century is the very time from which the opponents of the gospel narrative draw their principal objections. Now surely a man like Irenæus, who lived only twenty years or so later than this very time, must have known this fact better than certain professors of the nineteenth century. The more respect then, that we pay to the real culture and progress of our age, the less can we esteem those learned men who only use their knowledge and acuteness to make away with history. What Irenæus affirms is fully borne out by facts. We may therefore, with all confidence, intrust ourselves to his guidance. As a fact, the replies of the early church fathers to these heretics, 77to which we owe all that we know about them, furnish positive proof that these false teachers admitted our gospels to be, as the church already declared them to be, canonical; and Irenæus, the bishop of Lyons, is one of the chief authorities on this subject. Next to him we should place a work, discovered about twenty years ago, of a disciple of Irenæus, by name Hippolitus, a man who lived sufficiently near the time of these erroneous teachers to be, like his master, a competent testimony on such a subject.
One of the most intelligent and able of these early heretics was Valentinus, who came from Egypt to Rome some time in the early part of the second century, and lived there about twenty years. He undertook to write a complete history of all the celestial evolutions which, in the mysterious region of those celestial forces and heavenly intelligences—which he called the pleroma—prepared the way for the coming of the only-begotten Son, and pretended to determine in this way the nature and power of that only-begotten Son. In this extravagant attempt, he did not hesitate to borrow a number of expressions 78and ideas, such as the Word, the Only-begotten, Life, Light, Fulness, Truth, Grace, the Redeemer, the Comforter, from the gospel of St. John, and to use them for his own purposes. There is thus such an undeniable connection between the gospel of St. John and this Valentinian scheme of doctrine, that one of two explanations only are possible: Either Valentinus has borrowed from St. John, or St. John from Valentinus. After what we have said already, the latter supposition must appear utterly incredible, and a nearer consideration of the subject only confirms this. Now when a skeptical school of our age resorts to such a hypothesis as this, it proclaims its own downfall. Irenæus, in fact, expressly declares that the Valentinians made use of St. John’s gospel; and he shows us in detail how they drew from the first chapter some of their principal dogmas.
Hippolytus confirms this assertion of Irenæus. He quotes several of the sayings of our Lord as recorded by St. John, which were adopted by Valentinus. One of the most distinct references is that to John 10:8; of which Hippolytus writes: “Since the 79prophets and the law, according to Valentinus’ doctrine, were marked by an inferior and less intelligent spirit.” Valentinus quotes, in proof of this assertion, the words of the Redeemer, “All that ever came before me were thieves and robbers.” Hippolytus, Philosophoumenon, VI. 35. It is easy to prove that Valentinus treated the other gospels in the same way as he did that of St. John. According to Irenæus, he supposed that the inferior spirit, whom he called the Demiurge, or maker of the world, was typified in the centurion of Capernaum, Matt. 8:9; Luke 7:8. In the daughter of Jairus, dead and raised to life, he fancied a type of his lower wisdom, Ackamoth, the mother of the Demiurge; and in the history of the woman who, for twelve years, had the issue of blood, and who was healed by the Lord, Matt. 9:20, he saw a figure of the suffering and deliverance of his twelfth Œon.
What bearing, then, has all this on our inquiry? Already, before the middle of the second century, we see that our gospels, and especially that of St. John, were held in such esteem that even a fantastic philosopher attempted 80to find support in the simple words of the gospels for his fanciful scheme of celestial powers, primitive intelligences, Œons, and so forth.
Besides Valentinus, we possess a learned letter written by a disciple of his, by name Ptolemy. It contains, in addition to several quotations from St. Matthew, a passage taken from the first chapter of St. John, in these words: “The apostle says that all things were made by it, and that without it was not any thing made that was made.”
Another distinguished follower and companion of Valentinus, by name Heracleon, wrote an entire commentary on the gospel of St. John, several fragments of which still remain. In it he endeavors to twist the words of the gospel into agreement with the fancies of Valentinus. What must have been the esteem, then, in which this gospel was held in the second century, when a leading follower of such a fanciful and erroneous theorist as Valentinus should feel himself driven to draw up a commentary on this gospel, in order to make it support his heresy.
Valentinus and his school were not the 81only writers who sought, though hostile to the church, to have the gospels on their side instead of against them. There were other sects, such as the Naassenes, so called from their possessing the spirit of the serpent (Nachash) that tempted our first parents; and the Peraticæ, a sect of enthusiasts, so called from their pretending to see into the heavenly future, who wove into their teachings many passages of St. John, as we learn from Hippolytus.
Already under Adrian, between A. D. 117 and 138, Basilides had written a long work to explain the gospels, in the same fantastic spirit as Valentinus. We can only infer this from a few fragments which remain to us. But we can say, with some degree of certainty, that he used the gospel of St. John; for Hippolytus expressly says that he used the expressions, “That was the true light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world,” John 1:9; and “Mine hour is not yet come,” John 2:4.
Let us not pass over another heretic of the early part of the second century, whose name has been used by those who take the contrary 82view. We refer to Marcion, in reply to whom Tertullian wrote the work we have above referred to. He was born at Sinope, on the shores of the Black sea; but it was at Rome that he afterwards wrote those works which brought his name into notice. It was his special effort to break the link which connects Christianity with Judaism, and for this reason he tried to get rid of every thing in the apostles’ teaching which seemed to countenance Judaism. As we learn from church history that Marcion composed a canon of Scripture adapted to his own peculiar views, and that this collection contained only the gospel of St. Luke, with ten of the apostle Paul’s epistles, and that he even accommodated the text of these to fit in with his notions, certain learned men have thought that this was the first collection of Holy Scripture known to the church—that his gospel was the original of that which now passes for the gospel of St. Luke, and that he was not acquainted with the gospel of St. John. We hold that all these three assertions are quite erroneous; as regards the second of the three, it is admitted on all sides to be so. 83As to the third of these assumptions, of which so much has been made, that Marcion was unacquainted with St. John’s gospel, the following testimony of Tertullian is decisive against it. This writer tells us of an earlier work of Marcion’s, in which he made use of all the four gospels, and that to suit his own purposes he afterwards rejected all but that of St. Luke. We have not the least right to doubt this statement, since the whole of Tertullian’s reply to Marcion rests on this point as on an undisputed fact.
These heretics, then, of the early church, have rendered considerable service by their testimony to the early reception of the gospels. We now pass them by to notice those open enemies of Christianity, to whom the preaching of the cross was nothing but a stumbling-block and foolishness. About the middle of the second century there was such a one in Celsus, who wrote a book full of ridicule and reproach against Christianity. The book itself has long since been lost—a fate which it well deserved; and yet, in spite of all its bitterness and scorn, it did no real damage to the young Christian church still 84suffering under persecution—a fact which is encouraging to us, who have to meet similar attacks in our day. It is well for us, however, that Origen has preserved several extracts from this book of Celsus. From these extracts we gather that Celsus, in attacking Christianity, made use of the gospels, and as “the writings of the disciples of Jesus,” employed them to show what was believed by Christians. He notices in this way the story of the wise men coming from the East, the flight of the child Jesus into Egypt, the appearing of the dove at our Lord’s baptism, his birth from a virgin, his agony in the garden, his thirst on the cross, etc. While he gathers these facts from the first three gospels, he takes even more details from the gospel of St. John; as, for example, that Jesus was asked by the Jews in the temple to do some miracle, that Jesus was known as the Word of God, that at the crucifixion blood flowed from his side. Of the accounts of the resurrection he notices that in one gospel there are two angels, and in another gospel only one is spoken of as present at the grave; to which Origen said in reply, that the one 85account is based on the gospels of St. Luke and St. John, the other on that of St. Matthew and St. Mark. We may, therefore, conclude that this heathen opponent of the gospel in the second century knew of the four gospels which we possess, and considered them, as we do, to be genuine apostolical writings.86
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