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Bible Commentaries

Haydock's Catholic Bible CommentaryHaydock's Catholic Commentary

- John

by George Leo Haydock





St. John, the evangelist, a native of Bathsaida, in Galilee, was the son of Zebedee and Salome. He was by profession a fisherman. Our Lord gave to John, and to James, his brother, the surname of Boanerges, or, sons of thunder; most probably for their great zeal, and for their soliciting permission to call fire from heaven to destroy the city of the Samaritans, who refused to receive their Master. St. John is supposed to have been called to the apostleship younger than any of the other apostles, not being more than twenty-five or twenty-six years old. The Fathers teach that he never married. Our Lord had for him a particular regard, of which he gave the most marked proofs at the moment of his expiring on the cross, by intrusting to his care his virgin Mother. He is the only one of the apostles that did not leave his divine Master in his passion and death. In the reign of Domitian, he was conveyed to Rome, and thrown into a caldron of boiling oil, from which he came out unhurt. He was afterwards banished to the island of Patmos, where he wrote his book of Revelations; and, according to some, his Gospel. Tota antiquitas in eo abunde consentit, quod Domitianus exilii Joannis auctor fuerit. (Lampe. Proleg. lib. i. cap. 4.) --- In his gospel, St. John omits very many leading facts and circumstances mentioned by the other three evangelists, supposing his readers sufficiently instructed in points which his silence approved. It is universally agreed, that St. John had seen and approved of the other three gospels. (St. Hier. [St. Jerome,] de vir. illust. Eusebius, lib. iii, chap. 24.) --- St. Luke, says a learned author, seems to have had more learning than any other of the evangelists, and his language is more varied, copious, and pure. This superiority in style may perhaps be owing to his longer residence in Greece, and greater acquaintance with Gentiles of good education. --- St. Denis, of Alexandria, found in the gospel of St. John, elegance and precision of language, not only in the choice and arrangement of expressions, but also in his mode of reasoning and construction. We find here, says this saint, nothing barbarous and improper, nothing even low and vulgar; insomuch, that God not only seems to have given him light and knowledge, but also the means of well clothing his conceptions. (Dion. Alex. [Denis of Alexandria] apud Euseb. lib. vii, chap. 25.) --- Our critics do not join with St. Denis. They generally conceive St. John, with respect to language, as the least correct of the writers of the New Testament. His style argues a great want of those advantages which result from a learned education: but this defect is amply compensated by the unexampled simplicity with which he expresses the sublimest truths, by the supernatural lights, by the depth of the mysteries, by the superexcellency of the matter, by the solidity of his thoughts, and importance of his instructions. The Holy Ghost, who made choice of him, and filled him with infused wisdom, is much above human philosophy and the art of rhetoric. He possesses, in a most sovereign degree, the talent of carrying light and conviction to the mind, and warmth to the heart. He instructs, convinces, and persuades, without the aid of art or eloquence. --- St. John is properly compared to the eagle, because in his first flight he ascends above all sublunary objects, and does not stop till he meets the throne of the Almighty. He is so sententious, says St. Ambrose, that he gives us as many mysteries as words. (De Sacram. lib. iii, chap. 2) --- From Patmos our saint returned to Ephesus, where he died. (Euseb. lib. iii. hist. eccles.) --- It is said that the original gospel was preserved in the church of Ephesus till the seventh age [century], at least till the fourth; for St. Peter, of Alexandria, cites it. See Chron. Alex. and manuscript fragment. de paschate apud Petav. et Usher. --- Besides the gospel, we have of St. John three epistles and the Book of Revelations; and though other productions have been palmed on the world under the name of our evangelist, the Catholic Church only approves of those above specified. Ancient Fathers have given him the name of the Theologian: a title his gospel, and particularly the first chapter, deserves. Polycratus, bishop of Ephesus, tells us that St. John carried on his forehead a plate of gold, as priest of Jesus Christ, to honour the priesthood of the new law, in imitation of the high priests of the Jews. (Polycr. apud Euseb. liv. v, chap. 24.) --- This gospel was written in Greek, about the end of the first hundred years from Christ’s nativity, at the request of the bishops of the Lesser Asia [Asia Minor], against the Cerinthians and the Ebionites, and those heretics, or Antichrists, as St. John calls them, (1 John iv. 3.) who pretended that Jesus was a mere man, who had no being or existence before he was born of Joseph and Mary. The blasphemies of these heretics had divers abettors in the first three ages [centuries], as Carpocrates, Artemon, the two Theodotus, Paul of Samosata, Sabellius, and some others; on whom, see St. Irenæus, St. Epiphanius, St. Augustine, &c. To these succeeded, in the beginning of the fourth century, Arius, of Alexandria, and the different branches of the blasphemous Arian sect. They allowed that Jesus Christ had a being before he was born of Mary; that he was made and created before all other creatures, and was more perfect than any of them; but still that he was no more than a creature: that he had a beginning, and that there was a time when he was not: that he was not properly God, or the God, not the same God, nor had the same substance and nature, with the eternal Father and Creator of all things. This heresy was condemned by the Church in the first General Council, at Nice, ann. 325. --- After the Arians rose up the Macedonians, who denied the divinity of the Holy Ghost; and afterwards the Nestorians, Eutychians, &c. In every age pride and ignorance have produced some heresies; for, as the Apostle says, (1 Corinthians xi. 19.) there must be heresies. Towards the beginning of the sixteenth age [century] Luther, Zuinglius, Calvin, &c. set themselves up for reformers, even of that general and Catholic faith which they found every where taught, and believed in all Christian Churches. Luther owns that he was then alone, the only one of his communion, (if so it may be called); yet none of these called in question the mysteries of the Trinity, or of the Incarnation. --- But not many years after, came the blasphemous sect of the Socinians, so called from Lælius and Faustus Socini. These, and their followers, renewed the condemned errors of the Arians. We scarce find any thing new in the systems of these men, who would pass for somebody, like Theodas, Acts v. 36.; or who, like Simon, the magician, and first heretic, would be looked upon as great men, and great wits, by daring to be free-thinkers, and thereby bold blasphemers. --- To do justice to Calvin, he did not think these Socinians fit to live in any Christian society: and therefore he got Michael Servetus burnt alive at Geneva, ann. 1553; and Valentinus Gentilis, one of the same sect, was beheaded at Berne, ann. 1565. I must needs say, it seems an easier matter to excuse the warm sharp zeal of Calvin, and his Swiss brethren, in persecuting to death these Socinians with sword and faggot, than to shew with what justice and equity these men could be put to death, who followed the very same principle, and the only rule of faith; i.e. Scriptures expounded by every man’s private reason, or private spirit; which the pretended Reformers, all of them, maintain with as much warmth as ever, to the very day. --- Heretics in all ages have wrested the sense of the Scriptures, to make them seem to favour their errors: and by what we see so frequently happen, it is no hard matter for men who have but a moderate share of wit and sophistry, by their licentious fancies and arbitrary expositions, to turn, change, and pervert Scripture texts, and to transform almost any thing into any thing, says Dr. Hammond, on the second chapter of St. John’s Revelation. But I need not fear to say, this never appeared so visibly as in these last two hundred years; the truth of which no one can doubt, who reads the History of the Variations, written by the learned bishop of Meaux. --- These late Reformers seem to make a great part of their religion consist in reading, or having at least the Bible in their mother-tongue. The number of translations into vulgar languages, with many considerable differences, is strangely multiplied. Every one rashly claims a right to expound them according to his private judgment, or his private spirit. And what is the consequence of this; but that as men’s judgments and their private interpretations are different, so in a great measure are the articles of their creed and belief? --- The Scriptures, in which are contained the revealed mysteries of divine faith, are, without all doubt, the most excellent of all writings: these divers volumes, written by men inspired from God, contained not the words of men, but the word of God, which can save our souls: (1 Thessalonians ii. 13. and James i. 21.) but then they ought to be read, even by the learned, with the spirit of humility; with a fear of mistaking the true sense, as so many have done; with a due submission to the Catholic Church, which Christ himself commanded us to hear and obey. This we might learn from the Scripture itself. The apostle told the Corinthians, that even in those days there were many who corrupted and adulterated the word of God. (2 Corinthians ii. 17.) St. Peter gives us this admonition: that in the Epistles of St. Paul, are some things hard to understand, which the unlearned and the unstable wrest, as they do also the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. --- It was merely to prevent and remedy this abuse of the best of books, that it was judged necessary to forbid the ignorant to read the Scriptures in vulgar languages, without the advice and permission of their pastors and spiritual guides, whom Christ appointed to govern his Church. (Acts xx. 28.) The learned University of Paris, 1525, at that time, and in those circumstances, judged the said prohibition necessary: and whosoever hath had any discourses with persons of different religions and persuasions in our kingdom, especially with Anabaptists, Quakers, and such as pretend to expound the Scriptures, either by their private reason or by the private spirit, will, I am confident, be fully convinced that the just motives of the said prohibition subsist to this very day. Ignorant men and women turn Scripture texts to the errors of their private sects, and wrest them to their own perdition; as the very best of remedies prove pernicious and fatal to those who know not their virtues, nor how to use them, and apply them. --- They might learn from the Acts of the Apostles, (Chap. xv.) that as soon as a doubt and dispute was raised, whether the Gentiles converted by the apostles, were obliged to observe any of the ceremonies of the law of Moses, this first controversy about religion was not decided by the private judgment, or private spirit, even of those apostolical preachers, but by an assembly or council of the apostles and bishops, held at Jerusalem; as appears by the letter of the council sent to the Christians at Antioch. It hath seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, &c. to us, whom Christ promised to direct by the Spirit of truth; with whom, he assured us, he would remain to the end of the world. --- The very same method, as it is evident by the annals of Church history, hath been practised to the very time, and will be to the end of the world. It is the rule grounded on the command and promises of Christ, when he founded and established the Christian Church. All disputes about the sense of the Scriptures, and about points of the Christian belief, have been always decided by the successors of St. Peter, and the other apostles; even by general councils, when judged necessary: and they who, like Arius, obstinately refused to submit their private judgment to that of the Catholic Church, were always condemned, excommunicated, and cut off from the communion of the Church of Christ. --- Nor is this rule and this submission to be understood of the ignorant and unlearned only, but also of men accomplished in all kind of learning. The ignorant fall into errors for want of knowledge, and the learned are many times blinded by their pride and self-conceit. The sublime and profound mysteries, such as the Trinity, the Incarnation of the eternal Son of God, the manner of Christ’s presence in the holy sacrament, are certainly above the reach of man’s weak reason and capacity; much less are they the object of our senses, which are so often deceived. Let every reader of the sacred volumes, who pretends to be a competent judge of the sense, and of the truths revealed in them, reflect on the words which he finds in Isaias: (Chap. lv. 8, 9) For my thoughts are not your thoughts; nor your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are exalted above the earth, so are my ways exalted above your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts. How then shall any one, by his private reason, pretend to judge, to know, to demonstrate, what is possible or impossible to the incomprehensible power of God? --- A self-conceited Socinian, big with the opinion he has of his own wit and knowledge, will boldly tell us, that to say or believe that three distinct persons are one and the same God, is a manifest contradiction. Must we believe him? Or the Christian Catholic Church, in all ages? That is, against the greatest authority upon earth: whether we consider the Church as the most illustrious society and body of men; or whether we consider the same Church as under the protection of Christ and his divine promises, to teach them all truth to the end of the world. Besides this, experience itself should make the said Socinian distrust his own judgment as to such a pretended contradiction, when he finds that the brightest wits, and most subtle philosophers, after all their study and search of natural causes and effects, for so many hundred years, by the light of their reason could never yet account for the most common and obvious things in nature, such as are the parts of matter, and extension, local motion, and the production of numberless vegetables and animals, which we see happen, but know not how. See the author of a short answer to the late Dr. Clark and Mr. Whiston, concerning the divinity of the Son of God, and of the Holy Ghost. An. 1729. --- The latest writers among the pretended Reformers hesitate not to tell us, that what the Church and its councils have declared, as to Christ’s real presence in the holy sacrament, is contradicted by all our senses; as if our senses, which are so often mistaken, were the supreme and only judges of such hidden mysteries. Another tells us, that for Christ to be truly and really present in many places, in ten thousand places at once, is a thing impossible in nature and reason; and his demonstrative proof is, that he knows it to be impossible. With this vain presumption, he runs on to this length of extravagant rashness, and boldly pronounces, that should he find such a proposition in the Bible, nay, though with his eyes he should see a man raise the dead, and declare that proposition true, he could not believe it: and merely because he knows it impossible: which is no more than to say, that it does not seem possible to his weak reason. I do not find that he offers to bring any other proof, but that it is contrary to his senses, and that God cannot assert a contradiction. And why must we take it for a contradiction, only because he tells us, he knows it to be so? It was certainly the safest way for him, to bring no reasons to shew it impossible to the infinite and incomprehensible power of the Almighty: this vain attempt would only have given new occasions to his learned antagonist, the author of the Single Combat, to expose his weakness even more than he has done. --- May not every Unitarian, every Arian, every Socinian, every Latitudinarian, every Free-thinker, tell us the same? And if this be a sufficient plea, none of them can be condemned of heresy or error. Calvin could never silence Servetus, (unless it were by lighting faggots round him) if he did but say, I know that three distinct persons cannot be one and the same God. It is a contradiction, and God cannot assert a contradiction. I know that the Son cannot be the same God with the Father. It is a contradiction, and therefore impossible. So that though I find clear texts in the Scriptures, that three give testimony in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one: though Christ, the Son of God, tells us, that he and the Father are one, or one thing; nay, though I should with my own eyes, see men raise the dead to confirm these mysteries, (as many are recorded to have done) and declare them to be revealed divine truths, I cannot believe them, because I know them to be false, to be nonsense, to be contradictions to reason and nature. The like the Free-thinker may tell us, with the Pelagians, as to the existence of original sin, that all men should become liable to eternal death for Adam’s sinning; with the Manicheans, that men cannot have free will to do, or abstain from, sinful actions, and yet God know infallibly from eternity what they will do; with the Origenists, that God, who is infinite goodness itself, will not punish sinners eternally, for yielding to what the inclinations of their corrupt nature prompt them. They have the same right to tell all Christendom, that they know these pretended revealed mysteries to be nonsense, impossibilities, and contradictions. And every man’s private judgment, when, with an air of confidence, he says, I know it, must pass for infallible; though he will not hear of the Catholic Church being infallible, under the promises of our Saviour, Christ. --- But to conclude this preface, already much longer than I designed, reason itself, as well as the experience we have of our own weak understanding, from the little we know even of natural things, might preserve every sober thinking man from such extravagant presumption, pride and self-conceited rashness, as to pretend to measure God’s almighty and incomprehensible power by the narrow and shallow capacity of human understanding, or to know what is possible or impossible for Him that made all things out of nothing. In fine, let not human understanding exalt itself against the knowledge of God, but bring into a rational captivity and submission every thought to the obedience of Christ. Let every one humbly acknowledge with the great St. Augustine, whose learning and capacity, modestly speaking, were not inferior to those of any of those bold and rash pretenders to knowledge, that God can certainly do more than we can understand. Let us reflect with St. Gregory of Nazianzus (Orat. xxxvii. p. 597. C.) that if we know not the things under our feet, we must not pretend to fathom the profound mysteries of God.[1] --- And, in the mean time, let us pray for those who are thus tossed to and fro with every wind and blast of different doctrines, (Ephesians iv. 14.) that God, of his infinite mercy, would enlighten their weak and blinded understanding with the light of the one true faith, and bring them to the one fold of his Catholic Church. (Witham)


[1] Naz. Orat. xxxvii. Greek: Mede ta en posin eidenai dunamenoi ... me theou bathesin embateuein.


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