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In what Way, on collating the consentient opinions of the Ancient Masters, the Novelties of Heretics may be detected and condemned.
[71.] And here I perceive that, as a necessary sequel to the foregoing, I ought to show by examples in what way, by collating the consentient opinions of the ancient masters, the profane novelties of heretics may be detected and condemned. Yet in the investigation of this ancient consent of the holy Fathers we are to bestow our pains not on every minor question of the Divine Law, but only, at all events especially, where the Rule of Faith is concerned. Nor is this way of dealing with heresy to be resorted to always, or in every instance, but only in the case of those heresies which are new and recent, and that on their first arising, before they have had time to deprave the Rules of the Ancient Faith, and before they endeavour, while the poison spreads and diffuses itself, to corrupt the writings of the ancients. But heresies already widely diffused and of old standing are by no means to be thus dealt with, seeing that through lapse of time they have long had opportunity of corrupting the truth. And therefore, as to the more ancient schisms or heresies, we ought either to confute them, if need be, by the sole authority of the Scriptures, or at any rate, to shun them as having been already of old convicted and condemned by universal councils of the Catholic Priesthood.
[72.] Therefore, as soon as the corruption of each mischievous error begins to break forth, and to defend itself by filching certain passages of Scripture, and expounding them fraudulently and deceitfully, forthwith, the opinions of the ancients in the interpretation of the Canon are to be collected, whereby the novelty, and consequently the profaneness, whatever it may be, that arises, may both without any doubt be exposed, and without any tergiversation be condemned. But the opinions of those Fathers only are to be used for comparison, who living and teaching, holily, wisely, and with constancy, in the Catholic faith and communion, were counted worthy either to die in the faith of Christ, or to suffer death happily for Christ. Whom yet we are to believe on this condition, that that only is to be accounted indubitable, certain, established, which either all, or the more part, have supported and confirmed manifestly, frequently, persistently, in one and the same sense, forming, as it were, a consentient council of doctors, all receiving, holding, handing on the same doctrine. But whatsoever a teacher holds, other than all, or contrary to all, be he holy and learned, be he a bishop, be he a Confessor, be he a martyr, let that be regarded as a private fancy of his own, and be separated from the authority of common, public, general persuasion, lest, after the sacrilegious custom of heretics and schismatics, rejecting the ancient truth of the universal Creed, we follow, at the utmost peril of our eternal salvation, the newly devised error of one man.
[73.] Lest any one perchance should rashly think the holy and Catholic consent of these blessed fathers to be despised, the Apostle says, in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, “God hath placed some in the Church, first Apostles,”510510 1 Cor. xii. 27, 28. of whom himself was one; “secondly Prophets,” such as Agabus, of whom we read in the Acts of the Apostles;511511 Acts xi. 28. “then doctors,” who are now called Homilists, Expositors,512512 “Tractatores.” St. Augustine’s Expository Lectures on St. John’s Gospel are entitled “Tractatus.” whom the same apostle sometimes calls also “Prophets,” because by them the mysteries of the Prophets are opened to the people. Whosoever, therefore, shall despise these, who had their appointment of God in His Church in their several times and places, when they are unanimous in Christ, in the interpretation of some one point of Catholic doctrine, despises not man, but God, from whose unity in the truth, lest any one should vary, the same Apostle earnestly protests, “I beseech you, brethren, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.”513513 1 Cor. i. 10. But if any one dissent from their unanimous decision, let him listen to the words of the same apostle, “God is not the God of dissension but of peace;”514514 1 Cor. xiv. 33. that is, not of him who departs from the unity of consent, but of those who remain steadfast in the peace of consent: “as,” he continues, “I teach in all Churches of the saints,” that is, of Catholics, which churches are therefore churches of the saints, because they continue steadfast in the communion of the faith.
[74.] And lest any one, disregarding every one else, should arrogantly claim to be listened to himself alone, himself alone to be believed, the Apostle goes on to say, “Did the word of God proceed from you, or did it come to you only?” And, lest this should be thought lightly spoken, he continues, “If any man seem to be a prophet or a spiritual person, let him acknowledge that the things which I write unto you are the Lord’s commands.” As to which, unless a man be a prophet or a spiritual person, that is, a master in spiritual matters, let him be as observant as possible of impartiality and unity, so as neither to prefer his own opinions to those of every one besides, nor to recede from the belief of the whole body. Which injunction, whoso ignores, shall be himself ignored;515515 1 Cor. xiv. 33. that is, he who either does not learn what he does not know, or treats with contempt what he knows, shall be ignored, that is, shall be deemed unworthy to be ranked of God with those who are united to each other by faith, and equalled with each other by humility, than which I cannot imagine a more terrible evil. This it is however which, according to the Apostle’s threatening, we see to have befallen Julian the Pelagian,516516 Julian, bishop of Eclanum, a small town in Apulia or Campania, was one of nineteen bishops, who, having espoused the cause of Pelagius, and having refused to subscribe a circular letter issued by Zosimus, now adopting the decisions of the African Council (see above note p. 147) were deposed and banished. St. Augustine at his death left a work against Julian unfinished, “Opus imperfectum contra Julianum,” in which he had been engaged till the sickness of which he died put an end to his labours. who either neglected to associate himself with the belief of his fellow Christians, or presumed to dissociate himself from it.
[75.] But it is now time to bring forward the exemplification which we promised, where and how the sentences of the holy Fathers have been collected together, so that in accordance with them, by the decree and authority of a council, the rule of the Church’s faith may be settled. Which that it may be done the more conveniently, let this present Commonitory end here, so that the remainder which is to follow may be begun from a fresh beginning.
[The Second Book of the Commonitory is lost. Nothing of it remains but the conclusion: in other words, the recapitulation which follows.]
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