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the ordinary acceptation of the term in classical authors. This is one of those cases wherein the interpretation given by the earliest Greek fathers deserves particular notice. In this verdict, however, I limit myself to those comments wherein they give a literal exposition of the sacred text, and do not run, as is but too customary with them, into vision and allegory. There are so many advantages which people have, for discovering the import of a term or phrase in their mother-tongue, unusual perhaps in writing, but current in conversation, above those who study a dead language, solely by means of the books extant in it, that no reasonable person can question that some deference is, in such cases, due to their authority.
You will observe that, in regard to the words or phrases, whereof an illustration may be had from other parts of sacred writ, whether of the Old, or of the New, Testament; I should not think it necessary to recur directly to those primitive, any more than to our modern, expounders. My reason is, as the word or phrase may not improbably be affected by the idiom of the synagogue, the Jewish literature will be of more importance than the Grecian, for throwing light upon the passage. Now this is a kind of learning with which the Greek fathers were very little acquainted. Whereas, on the other hand, if the term in question rarely, or but once occur in the New Testament, and never in the version of the Old, there is little ground to imagine that it is affected by the idiom of the synagogue, but the greatest reason
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to suppose that it is adopted, by the sacred penmen, in the common acceptation.
I think it necessary to add here another limitation to the reference intended to the ancient Greek expositors. If the doubtful passage have been produced in support of a side, in any of the famous controversies by which the Christian church has been divided; no regard is due to the authority, whatever may be due to the arguments, of any writer, who lived at, or soon after, the time when the controversy was agitated. If you know the side he took in the dispute, you are sure beforehand of the explanation he will give of the words in question. Nothing blinds the understanding more effectually than the spirit of party, and no kind of party-spirit more than bigotry under the assumed character of religious zeal.
9. With respect to the use to be made of the Fathers, for assisting us to understand the Scriptures, there are two extremes, to one or other of which, the much greater part of Christians show a propensity. One is, an implicit deference to their judgment, in every point on which they have given an opinion; the other is, no regard at all to any thing advanced by them. To the first extreme the more moderate Romanists, and those Protestants who favour pompous ceremonies, and an aristocratical hierarchy, are most inclined; and to the second, those Protestants, on the contrary, who prefer simplicity of worship, and the democratical form in church
vernment. But these observations admit many exceptions. As to the Papists, in the worst sense of the word, those who are for supporting even the most exorbitant of the papal claims, the manifest tendency whereof is to establish an ecclesiastical despotism, the aim of their doctrine, in spite of the canons, has long been to lessen, as much as possible, our reve. rence of the Fathers. What was said by Friar Theatin an Italian, in a public disputation with some French divines, at Paris, in presence of the Pope's nuncio and many prelates, may be justly considered as spoken in the spirit, and expressive of the sentiments, of the whole party. When his antagonist Baron, a Dominican, urged the testimonies of several Fathers, in direct opposition to the doctrine maintained by the Italian, the latter did not recur to the chimerical distinctions of the Sorbonists, but making light of that long train of authorities, replied contemptuously, “ As to what concerns the authority “ of the Fathers, I have only to say with the church, “ Omnes sancti patres orate pro nobis ;” an answer which, at the same time that it greatly scandalized the Galican doctors, was highly approved by the Nuncio, well knowing that it would be very much relished at Rome. So similar on this head are the sentiments of the most opposite sects. Nor is this the only instance wherein the 'extremes approach nearer to each other, than the middle does to either. I
may add that an unbounded respect for the Fathers was, till the commencement of the sixteenth century, the prevalent sentiment in Christendom. Since
that time, their authority has declined apace, and is, at present, in many places, totally annihilated.
I own that, in my opinion, they of former generations were in one extreme, and we of the present are in another. The Fathers are not entitled to our adoration, neither do they merit our contempt. If some of them were weak and credulous, others of them were both learned and judicious. In what depends purely on reason and argument, we ought to treat them with the same impartiality we do the moderns, carefully weighing what is said, not who says it. In what depends on testimony, they are, in every case wherein no particular passion can be suspected to have swayed them, to be preferred before modern inditerpreters or annotators. I say not this to insinuate that we can rely more on their integrity, but to signify that many points were with them a subject of testimony, which, with modern critics, are matter merely of conjecture, or at most, of abstruse and critical discussion. It is only from ancient authors, that those ancient usages, in other things, as well as in language, can be discovered by us, which to them stood on the footing of matters of fact, whereof they could not be ignorant. Language, as has been often observed, is founded in use; and ancient use, like all other ancient facts, can be conveyed to us only by written testimony. Besides, the facts regarding the import of words (when controversy is out of the question) do not, like other facts, give scope to the passions to operate ; and if misrepresented, they expose either the ignorance, or the bad faith, of the author,
to his contemporaries. I do not say, therefore, that we ought to confide in the verdict of the Fathers as judges, but that we ought to give them an impartial hearing as, in many cases, the only competent wit
And every body must be sensible that the direct testimony of a plain man, in a matter which comes within the sphere of his knowledge, is more to be regarded, than the subtle conjectures of an able scholar who does not speak from knowledge, but gives the conclusions he has drawn from his own precarious reasonings, or from those of others.
§ 10. And, even as to what is advanced not on knowledge, but on opinion, I do not think that the moderns are, in general, entitled to the preference. On controverted articles of faith, both ought to be consulted with caution, as persons who may reasonably be thought prejudiced, in favour of the tenets of their party. If, in this respect, there be a difference, it is entirely in favour of the ancients. An increase of years has brought to the church an increase of controversies. Disputes have multiplied, and been dogmatically decided. The consequence whereof is, that religion was not near so much moulded into the systematic form, for many centuries, as it is in these latter ages. Every point was not, in ancient times, so minutely discussed, and every thing, even to the phraseology, settled, in the several sects, with so much hypercritical, and metaphysical, not to say sophistical subtlety, as at present. They were, therefore, if not entirely free, much less entangled