Venerable Bede, the English Presbyter.
T HE church history of our country, written by this renowned father, was continued to the year 731. I have extracted from it that which suited my purpose. He is said to have died in 735. Of his age the accounts are very contradictory. The history of the century will properly begin with a brief narrative of the life and works of this historian.
He was born near Durham, in a village now called Farrow, near the mouth of the Tyne. Losing both his parents at the age of seven years, he was, by the care of relations, placed in the monastery of Weremouth, was there educated with much strictness, and appears from his youth to have been devoted to the service of God. He was afterwards removed to the neighbouring monastery of Jerrow, where he ended his days. He was looked on as the most learned man of his time. Prayer, writing, and teaching were his familiar employments during his whole life.* He was ordained deacon in the nineteenth, and presbyter in the thirtieth year of his age. He gave himself wholly to the study of the scripture, the instruction of disciples, the offices of public worship, and the composition of religious and literary works. The life of such a person can admit of little variety. It was not, however, for vjrant of opportunity, that he lived thus obscure. His character was celebrated through the western world: the bishop of Rome invited him warmly to the metropolis of the church; but, in the eyes of Bede, the great world had no
• Life of Bede, prefixed to his works. Cologne edition.
charms. It does not appear that he ever left England; and, however infected with the fashionable devotion to the Roman see, he was evidently sincere and disinterested.
Constantly engaged in reading or writing, he made all his studies subservient to devotion. As he was sensible, that it is by the grace of God rather than by natural faculties that the most profitable knowledge of the scriptures is acquired, he mixed prayer with hjs studies. He never knew what it was to do nothing. He wrote on all the branches of knowledge then cultivated in Europe. In Greek and Hebrew he had a skill very uncommon in that barbarous age; and, by his instructions and example, he raised up many scholars. Knowledge indeed in those times was more familiar in the British isles than in any part of Europe.
The catalogue of Bede's works exhibits the proofs of his amazing industry. His church history is to us the most valuable, because it is the only British monument of the church which we have for the seventh century. His expositions and homilies, however, must in that dearth of knowledge have been abundantly useful. The ignorance of the times is indeed but too visible in him; and he followed Augustine and other fathers so closely, and collected so much from various authors, that his want of original genius is more than problematical. Genuine godliness, rather than taste and genius, appear on the face of his writings. His labours in the sciences show a love of learning; however inconsiderable his acquisitions must appear, in comparison with the attainments of the present age.
In his last sickness he was afflicted with a difficulty of breathing for two weeks. His mind was, however, serene and cheerful; his affections were heavenly; and, amidst these infirmities, he daily taught his disciples. A great part of the night was employed in prayer and thanksgiving; and the first employment of the morning was to ruminate on the scriptures, and to address his God in prayer. " God scourgeth every son whom he receiveth," was frequently in his mouth.
Even amidst his bodily weakness he was employed in writing two little treatises. Perceiving his end to draw near he said, " if my Maker please, I will go to him from the flesh, who, when I was not, formed me out of nothing. My soul desires to see Christ my King in his beauty." He sang glory to the Father, the Son, and the Holyghost, and expired with a sedateness, composure, and devotion, that amazed all, who saw and heard.
This is the account of his death by one of his disciples; and a very few quotations from his expository" writings will show on what solid grounds these religious affections were founded. In expounding Acts ii. 28. " thou hast made known tome the ways of life; thou shalt make me full of joy with thy countenance," he says, " These things are not only to be understood of our Lord, who needed no other guide to overcome the kingdom of death, but having received at once the fulness of divine strength and wisdom, was able to conquer death by himself, rise again to life, and ascend to his Father, but also of his elect, who, by his gift, find the well of life, by which they rise to the bliss, which they lost in Adam, and shall be filled with heavenly joy. This shall be our perfect bliss, when we shall see him face to face." Philip knew this well, when he said, " Lord, show us the Father, and it sufficeth us. That pleasure of seeing the face of God sufficeth: there shall be nothing more; nor is there a call for any thing more, when he is seen, who is above all."*
" Other innumerable methods of saving men being set aside, this was selected by infinite wisdom, namely, that, without any diminution of his divinity, he assumed also humanity, and in humanity procured so much good to men, that temporal death, though not due from him, was yet paid, to deliver them from eternal death, which was due from them. Such was
• Retractat. on Acts of the Apostles. I cannot prevail on myself to omit this passage, though the expression of Philip be not so pertinent to the purpose of the author, as some other portions of scriptnre migKt have been.
the efficacy of that blood, that the devil who slew Christ by a temporary death, which was not due, can- . not detain in eternal death any of those who are clothed with Christ, though that eternal death be due for their sins."*
Such were the evangelical views, which, in a night of superstition, burst forth from the northern extremity of England. But the doctrines revived by Augustine flourished still in Europe in a good degree, though in no part more than in the British isles. Monastic superstition grew, indeed, excessively among our fathers at the same time, and, in the end, intirely corrupted the doctrines themselves. But that was not yet the case: superstition itself, though deplorably childish and absurd, was not incompatible with sincerity and the fear of God. The real nature of the gospel, and its practical exercise in faith, humility, and true mortification of sin, were understood and felt by the Saxon presbyter, whose comments on St. Paul's epistles are, in depth of understanding^ and penetration into the sacred sense, even with all the defects of the times, greatly superior to several admired expositions of this, which calls itself an enlightened, age. .
The seventh chapter to the Romans may deservedly be called a touchstone of spiritual understanding. Too many modern divines, by supposing that the apostle is only describing the conflict between reason and passion, after the manner of the ancient philosophers, have demonstrated their own total ignorance of St. Paul's argument. He only, who feels, abhors, and sincerely struggles with indwelling sin, who is conscious of its unutterable malignity, and is humbled under this conviction, can understand the apostle aright, and prize the real grace of God in Jesus Christ. Such was Bede: the very best expositors in the most evangelical times do not much exceed him, in clearness and solidity, in the exposition of this chapter. I will not delay the reader by quoting largely from his
explication. Suffice it to give a hint or two. He observes, from the apostle, that the desire of sinning itself is increased by the prohibitions of the law, which therefore increases sin, without giving any strength; and the purport of this part of the divine economy is, that men groaning under the law might come to the Mediator. He strongly contends, that the wretched carnal person, sold under sin, in this chapter, was no personated character, but Paul himself, and he confirms this by observing, from the epistle to the Philippians, that the apostle confessed " he was not perfect, and had not attained unto the resurrection of the dead:" and from another epistle, that he was even buffeted by Satan, and had a thorn in his flesh, lest he should be exalted above measure. This inward warfare, our author contends, must last through life. " In the resurrection, every thing," says he, " shall be perfected. In the mean time it is a great thing to keep the field, and remain unconquered, though not discharged from war."
But though he fully reached the scope of Augustine, from whose labours he profited abundantly, he seems never to go beyond it. Indeed his expositions are extracts and compilations from the fathers, chiefly from Augustine. In this sense they were his own, that he understood and experienced their truth and efficacy. But judgment and industry, not genius and invention, were the talents of this writer. Though the thought I am going to mention is most probably not his own, yet it gives so instructive a view of the state of all mankind ranked in four classes, that I cannot prevail on myself to withhold it from the reader. Speaking of the conflict with indwelling sin, described in Rom. vii, he observes, " that there are those who fight not at all, and are drawn away by their lusts; others who fight indeed, but are overcome, because they fight without faith, and in their own strength; others who fight and are still in the field, not overcome, which was the case of St. Paul and all true christians in this world; and lastly, others who have overcome and are at rest above." Bede, like Augustine, allegorizes to excess, and is very often desultory and vague in his comments: his views of Solomon's Song are solid, though in the explication too minute: still more faulty perhaps are his expositions on the tabernacle and on Solomon's temple. His homilies, at the time, must have been very edifying, notwithstanding the puerile fancies, with which they are discoloured. On the whole, I shall venture to observe, what, however, no reader will be prepared to receive, unless his mind has been seasoned with a degree of experimental religion, that the comments of Bede are far more solid and judicious than those of many modern, improperly called rational, divines; though in the former the errors of fanciful allegory abound, in the latter an air of strict and accurate argumentation every where appears. The reason is, because the former, being possessed of the true meaning of the apostle on the whole, supports and illustrates it throughout, though he fails in detached passages because of the desultory ebullitions of a vicious taste, which predominated in his time; the latter, with " semblance of worth, not substance," are accurate and just in many particulars, but from their system of notions, which is extremely opposite to that of St. Paul, mislead their readers altogether, in regard to the main drift of the argument.
A year before our presbyter's death, he wrote a letter to Egbert, archbishop of York, which deserves to be immortalized for the solid sense, which it exhibits, a quality, with which Bede was very eminently endowed.*
" Above all things," says he, " avoid useless discourse, and apply yourself to the holy scriptures, especially the epistles toTimothvandTitus; to Gregory's Pastoral Care, and his homilies on the gospel. It is indecent for him, who is dedicated to the service of the church, to give way to actions or discourse unsuit
* Betlc'9 Works, Paris edit. p. 46. 4
Vol. III. 19
able to his character. Have always those about you, who may assist you in temptation: be not like some bishops, who love to have those about them, who love good cheer, and divert them with trifling and facetious conversation.
" Your diocese is too large to allow you to go through the whole in a year; therefore appoint presbyters, in each village, to instruct and administer the sacraments; and let them be studious, that every one of them may learn, by heart, the creed and the Lord's prayer; and that if they do not understand Latin, they may repeat them in their own tongue. I have translated them into English, for the benefit of ignorant presbyters. I am told, that there are many villages in our nation, in the mountainous parts, the inhabitants of which have never seen a bishop or pastor; and yet they are obliged to pay their dues to the bishop.
" The best means to reform our church, is to increase the number of bishops: who sees not, how much more reasonable it is for numbers to share this burden? Gregory therefore directed Augustine to appoint twelve bishops to be under the archbishop of York, as their metropolitan. I wish you would fill up this number, with the assistance of the king of Northumberland.*
" I know it is not easy to find an empty place for the erection of a bishopric. You may choose some monastery for the purpose. In truth, there are manyplaces, which have the name of monasteries without deserving it." He goes on to show how, for thirty years past, the scandalous abuse of monasteries had prevailed, and how useless many of them were to church and state, as they preserved neither piety nor decency. He directs Egbert to see that his flock be instructed in christian faith and practice, and that they frequently attend on the communion. He finds fault
• His name was Cedulph. Two years after Bede's death, he gave up Vis crown and lived twenty-two years in a monastery. His mind wa» most probably truly devout, though the spirit of the times led him into a degenerate method of showing it.
with the excessive multiplication of monks, and expresses his fears, lest, in process of time, the state should be destitute of soldiers to repel an invasion. This last observation is of a piece with another at the close of his history, that many Northumbrians in his days, both nobles and private men, employed themselves and their children more in monastic vows than in the exercise of arms. " What effect this will have," says he, " the next generation will bear witness." It is no common instance of judgment in one who had always been a monk, to notice these evils.* How they happened to be so very fashionable in our island, it is not hard to account for. Our ancestors were, doubtless, much indebted under God to the Roman see. Christianity, before the missions of Gregory, was very low in England. A real spirit of godliness, the sincere practice and true understanding of the gospel, had been, through the bishops of Rome, introduced among barbarians. Even the benefits thence resulting to society must have been great. Gratitude and affection would naturally lead our ancestors, in those superstitious ages, to monastic excesses. And if the evils, of which Bede complains, be strong proofs of the superstitious taste, they are also of the spirit of piety which subsisted among them. While Bede lived, in no part of the world was godliness better understood and practised, than among our ancestors. In a synod held by Cuthbert, archbishop of Canterbury, about the middle of this century, at Cloveshoo,f there were twelve prelates, with Ethelbald, king of the Mercians. The canons of this synod would have done honour to the purest times, and they seem to have been inspired by the genius of Bede. The clergy are directed to have fellowship with one another, to serve God in one spirit of faith, hope, and charity, to pray for one another,
• Even kings gave themselves up to retirements of this kind, ami there want not instances, among the Saxon princeSj of pilgrimages to Rome of a religions nature.
+ Now Cliff", near Rochester. Warner
to attend the duties of the sabbath, and, in fine, the same things are repeated, which are to be found in Bede's letter to Egbert.
Let us not pride ourselves in a fancied superiority to our forefathers: a vanity of this seems to be the disease of the present age; but men were not all without understanding in those dark seasons. The indiscriminating censures of Mosheim on whole centuries, seem to show more malignity than discernment. Bede alone knew more of true religion, both doctrinal and practical, than numbers of ecclesiastics put together at this day; which will clearly appear, if we do but free him from superstitious rubbish, and examine what he is internally.