CHAPTER XIV. THE LEGACY OF THE EARLY CHURCH TO FUTURE GENERATIONS.
We cannot, of course, enter into the controversies through which the church elaborated the system of doctrines now generally received, nor describe those great men who gave such dignity to theological inquiries. Clement was raised up to combat the Gnostics, Athanasius to head off the alarming spread of Arianism, and Augustine to proclaim the efficacy of divine grace against the Pelagians. The treatises of these men and of other great lights on the Trinity, on the incarnation, and on original sin, had as great an influence on the thinking of the age and of succeeding ages, as the speculations of Plato, or the syllogisms of Thomas Aquinas, or the theories of Kepler, or the expositions of Bacon, or the deductions of Newton, or the dissertations of Burke, or the severe irony of Pascal. They did not create revolutions, since they did not labor to overturn, but they stimulated the human faculties, and conserved the most valued knowledge. Their definite opinions became the standard of faith among the eastern Christians, and were handed down to the Germanic barbarians. They were adopted by the Catholic church, and preserved unity of belief in ages of turbulence and superstition. One of the great recognized causes of modern civilization was the establishment of universities. In these the great questions which the fathers started and elaborated were discussed with renewed acumen. Had there been no Origen, or Tertullian, or Augustine, there would have been no Anselm, or Abelard, or Erigena. The speculations and inquiries of the Alexandrian divines controlled the thinking of Europe for one thousand years, and gave that intensely theological character to the literature of the Middle Ages, directing the genius of Dante as well as that of Bernard. Their influence on Calvin was as marked as on Bossuet. Pagan philosophy had no charm like the great verities of the Christian faith. Augustine and Athanasius threw Plato and Aristotle into the shade. Nothing more preeminently marked the great divines whom the Reformation produced, than the discussion of the questions which the fathers had systematized and taught. Nor was the interest confined to divines. Louis XIV. discussed free will and predestination with Racine and Fenelon, even as the courtiers of Louis XV. discussed probabilities and mental reservations. And in New England, at Puritan firesides, the passing stranger in the olden times, when religion was a life, entered into theological discussions with as much zest as he now would describe the fluctuations of stocks or passing vanities of crinoline and hair dyes. Nor is it one of the best signs of this material age that the interest in the great questions which tasked the intellects of our fathers is passing away. But there is a mighty permanence in great ideas, and the time, we trust, will come again when indestructible certitudes will receive more attention than either politics or fashions.
The influence of the fathers is equally seen in the music and poetry which have come down from their times. The church succeeded to an inheritance of religious lyrics unrivaled in the history of literature. TheMagnificat and the Nunc dimittis were sung from the earliest Christian ages. The streets of the eastern cities echoed to the seductive strains of Arius and Chrysostom. Flavian and Diodorus introduced at Antioch the antiphonal chant, which, improved by Ambrose, and still more by Gregory, became the joy of blessed saints in those turbulent ages, when singing in the choir was the amusement as well as the duty of a large portion of religious people. So numerous were the hymns of Ambrose, Hilary, Augustine, and others, that they became the popular literature of centuries, and still form the most beautiful part of the service of the Catholic church. Who can estimate the influence of hymns which have been sung for fifty successive generations? What a charm is still attached to the mediaeval chants! The poetry of the early church is preserved in those sacred anthems. They inspired the barbarians with enthusiasm, even as they had kindled the rapture of earlier Christians in the church of Milan. The lyrical poets are immortal, and exert a wide-spread influence. The fervent stanzas of Watts, of Steele, of Wesley, of Heber, are sung from generation to generation. The hymns of Luther are among the most valued of his various works. "From Greenland's icy mountains" - that sacred lyric - shall live as long as the "Elegy in a Country Church-yard," or the "Cotter's Saturday Night," yea, shall survive the "Night Thoughts," and the "Course of Time." There is nothing in Grecian or Roman poetry that fills the place of the psalmody of the early church. The songs of Ambrose were his richest legacy to triumphant barbarians, consoling the monk in his dreary cell and the peasant on his vine-clad hills, speaking the sentiment of a universal creed, and consecrating the most tender recollections. So that Christian literature, in its varied aspects, its exegesis, its sermons, its creeds, and its psalmody, if not equal in artistic merit to the classical productions of antiquity, have had an immeasurable influence on human thought and life, not in the Roman world merely, but in all subsequent ages.
But the great truths which the fathers proclaimed in reference to the moral and social relations of society are still more remarkable in their subsequent influence.