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Col. ii. 8. Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain
deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of
the world, and not after Christ. I OBSERVED in the former Lecture, that all the Fathers speak of heresies infesting the Church in the lifetime of the apostleso. We shall have occasion to consider hereafter, what is asserted with one consent by all of them, that Simon Magus was the parent and founder of all heresies. The testimony is equally strong, that Simon's opinions were taken up by Menander, who was succeeded in time by two disciples, Basilides and Saturninus. These men lived in the former part of the second century: at which time, or not long after, two other persons, Marcion and Valentinus, still more notorious for the extravagance of their opinions, were at the head of extensive sects. The doctrines of all these persons are stated to have had many points of resemblance: and those of Marcion and Valentinus are as clearly ascertained, as any other which the history of philosophy has preserved. Consequently if the pedigree be rightly traced, which deduces their opinions from the School of Simon Magus, we are not without some clue as to the errors which prevailed at the very beginning of the gospel.
I have said that the heresies of the second century are clearly and historically ascertained : and
no person can read the elaborate work of Irenæus, which he wrote expressly to confute those heresies, without allowing, that whatever might be his talent or his judgment, he must have known the doctrines which he opposed. Irenæus and all the Fathers agree in saying, that the heretics, whom I have named, belonged to the Gnostic School a : and therefore by the argument, which was before used, we may infer that the Gnostic opinions, or at least something like to that which was afterwards called Gnosticism, was professed in the time of the apostles.
Again we learn from the same Irenæusb, in which he is supported by many early writers, that St. John published his Gospel to oppose the heresy of Cerinthus: he adds, that the Cerinthian doctrines had been already maintained by the Nicolaitans, and that the Nicolaitans were a branch of the Gnostics Here then we have another positive evidence, that the Gnostic opinions were held in the time of the apostles: and if this were so, it might naturally be expected, that some allusions to these opinions would be found in the apostolic writings. It will be my object to investigate this point: but the tenets of Gnosticism hold so prominent a place in every account which we have of the earliest heresies, that it will be necessary for us to consider them at some length, and to endeavour to acquaint ourselves with their peculiar character.
There are few points, which are so striking in
See Irenæus, II. præf. III. Nicolaus indulging his passions, 4, 3. p. 179.
says that hence sprang up the 6 III. 11, 1. p. 188.
Gnostics and other heretics. c Epiphanius, speaking of Hær. XXV. 2. p. 77.
a perusal of the early Christian writers, as the frequent mention of the Gnostic tenets. The reader, who has some acquaintance with the doctrines of the heathen philosophers, and is familiar with those of the gospel, finds himself suddenly introduced to a new sect, the very name of which was perhaps unknown to him before. When he comes to the second century, he finds that Gnosticism, under some form or other, was professed in every part of the then civilized world. He finds it divided into schools, as numerously and as zealously attended as any which Greece or Asia could boast in their happiest days. He meets with names totally unknown to him before, which excited as much sensation as those of Aristotle or Plato. He hears of volumes having been written in support of this new philosophy, not one of which has survived to our own day. His classical recollections are roused by finding an intimate connexion between the doctrines of the Gnostics and of Plato: he hears of Jews, who made even their exclusive creed bend to the new system : and what interests him most is, that in every page he reads of the baneful effect which Gnosticism had upon Christianity, by adopting parts of the gospel scheme, but adopting them only to disguise and deform them.
Such is the picture which unfolds itself to the reader of ecclesiastical history in the second century: a picture, which must be allowed to contain a groundwork of truth, though perhaps it has been too highly coloured by the enemies of the Gnostics, who wrote against them when the evil was at its height, and who felt that all their united strength was required to stem the overwhelming torrent. By the blessing
of God it was stemmed, and died away: and, like other hurricanes, which have swept over the moral and religious world, it has left no trace of its devastation behind; it is forgotten, and almost unknown.
Some persons will perhaps doubt, whether Gnosticism was ever so widely spread as it is here represented: and though many causes might be assigned for the little interest which the subject excites, I believe the proximate cause will be found in the absence of all mention of Gnosticism from classical writers. There is perhaps no expression which excites so universal and so strong a feeling, and yet is so difficult to define, as what are commonly called the classical writers. If we fix certain periods of time, before and after which no writing is to be accounted classical, then indeed we have a definition which is certain and precise. But to what tribunal of learning or of taste shall we commit the fixing of these intellectual boundaries? We may trace the line which separates cultivation from the sands beyond it, but there are still some spots, some oases in the desert, which claim a connexion with more favoured regions, and which we admire the more for the barrenness which surrounds them. Custom, however, and prescription, have great influence in classical studies : and many who are most fond of them, would perhaps be surprised, if they were to reflect how few authors they have read, who wrote since the commencement of the Christian era d. Of
d Those persons who express were likely to have noticed it. surprise at finding so little men The only persons whom we tion of Christianity in heathen could name in the historical authors, have not perhaps con- department, between the death sidered how few writers there of Christ and the end of the were in the first century who century, were Valerius Maxi
those that are preferred, it is difficult to pronounce whether the term classical is, or ought to be, applied to them. But thus much appears certain, that the Christian writers of the second century do not come under that description. In this, perhaps, there is more of chance than of rational or systematic classification. If the second century, instead of the fourth, had witnessed the conversion of the Roman government, the Fathers of the Christian Church might have been ranked among the classics : or if, from defect of style, this name had been denied them, there is no reason why Justin Martyr, Irenæus, and Clement of Alexandria, might not have held as high a rank in literature as Plutarch, Lucian, or Athenæus. If style and language are to decide the question, the Christian Fathers need not fear the test. Both parties may have drawn from the same corrupted sources of eloquence; but Justin Martyr is much less obscure than Plutarch, and decency is at least not outraged by the Christian writers. If depth of argument be required, Irenæus is as close and as convincing a reasoner as his heathen contemporaries : and if the lighter reader loves to gather in Athenæus the flowers of ancient poetry, he may gratify the same taste in the amusing and diversified pages of Clement of Alexandria. The Christian Fathers are not surely neglected, because, abandon
mus, Q. Curtius, Tacitus, and in the same period were PetroSuetonius : and of these, the nius Arbiter, Pomponius Mela, two last are the only persons L. A. Seneca, Pliny Senior, who, from their date, or the Quintilian,Epictetus, DioChryssubject of their histories, would ostom, and Pliny Junior. The have been likely to notice the poets were Persius, Lucan, SiChristians; and the greater lius Italicus, Val. Flaccus, Stapart of the history of Tacitus tius, Juvenal, and Martial. is lost. The other prose writers