John Lord.

The Old Roman World, : the Grandeur and Failure of Its Civilization online

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monastic seclusion. The spirit of Evil, which seemed to be dominant on
earth, and which was associated with material things, chained the soul
to sense. The soul, longing for truth and holiness - for God and heaven -
panted to be free of the corrupting influences of matter, which
imprisoned the noblest part of man. The oriental Christian, not fully
emancipated from the spirit which Buddhism communicated to all the
countries of the East - that is, the longing of the soul for the release
from matter, its reunion with the primal power from which all life has
flowed, and the estrangement from human passions and worldly interests -
sought repose and retirement where the mind would be free to dwell on
the great questions which pertained to God and immortality. The
dualistic principle, one of the chief elements of Gnosticism, harmonized
with the prevailing temper of that age, even as the pantheistic
principle rules the schools of philosophy in our own. All Christians
were alive to consciousness of the power of evil. Gnosticism recognized
it. Christianity triumphs over it by the power of the Cross which
procures redemption. Gnosticism would work out salvation by
abstractions, by ascetic severities, by a renunciation of the pleasures
of the world. Hence it is the real father of monasticism - that spirit of
seclusion and self-abnegation which became so prevalent in the third and
fourth centuries, and which remained in the church through the mediaeval
period. Gnosticism busied itself with the solution of insoluble
questions respecting the origin of evil, which Christianity justly
relinquished to the domain of useless inquiries - "the wisdom of the
world." Gnosticism would acknowledge no limits to human speculation;
Christianity accepts mysteries hidden from the wise and prudent, and yet
revealed unto babes. Hence all sorts of crudities of belief crept into
the church, such as the idea of the demiurge, and the different ways of
contemplating the person of Christ. Moreover, the Gnostics subjected the
New Testament to the boldest criticism, affirming it to be impossible to
arrive at the true doctrines of Christ; and hence they sought to go
beyond Christ, explaining difficult subjects by rationalistic
interpretations. Cerinthus placed a boundless chasm between God and the
world, and filled it up with different orders of spirits as intermediate
beings. Basilides supposed an angel was set over the entire earthly
course of the world. Valentine announced the distinction between a
psychical and pneumatical Christianity. Ptolemaeus maintained that the
creation of the world did not proceed from the supreme God. Bardesanes
sought to trace the vestiges of truth among people of every nation.
Carpocrates maintained that all existence flowed from one supreme
original being, to whom it strives to return. Prodicus asserted that as
men were sons of the supreme God, a royal race, they were bound by no
law. Saturnine advanced a fanciful system on the creation. Tatian
advocated the mortality of the soul. Marcion attempted to sunder the God
of Nature and the God of the Old Testament from the God of the Gospel.
It is difficult to enumerate all the fanciful theories propounded by the
Gnostics, and which arose from the attempt to engraft Orientalism upon

[Sidenote: Manicheism.]

A still greater attempt to blend Christianity with the religions of
ancient Asia was made by Mani, a Persian, who especially attempted to
fuse Zoroastrian with Christian doctrines. He aimed to produce the
utmost estrangement from all mundane influences, since the evil
principle held in bondage the elements springing out of the kingdom of
light. Deliverance from this bondage he regarded as the great end and
aim of life. His spirit was pantheistic, probably derived from Buddhism,
which he had learned during his extensive journeys into India and China.
He adopted the dualism of Zoroaster, and supposed two principles
antagonistic to each other, on the one side God, the primal light, from
whom all light radiates, on the other side Evil, whose essence is self-
conflicting uproar, matter, darkness. Most nearly connected with the
supreme God were Aeons, - the channels for the diffusion of light, -
innumerable in number and of surpassing greatness. The Aeon-mother of
life generated the primitive man to oppose the powers of darkness. Hence
man's nature is full of dignity, although he was worsted in the conflict
with Evil. But the spirit raises him once more to the kingdom of light,
and purifies his soul which sprung from the primitive man. The pure soul
is Christ, enthroned in the sun, superior to all contact with matter,
and incapable of suffering.

[Sidenote: Mysticism.]

These were some of the features of that mystical philosophy which made
Christ the spirit of the sun, giving light and life to the soul
imprisoned in the kingdom of darkness. Man thus becomes a copy of the
world of light and darkness, struggling against matter, elevated by the
source of life - a soul living in the kingdom of light, and a body
derived from the kingdom of darkness, and enticed by all the pleasures
of sense, and thus drawn down to the world which is matter and evil,
counteracted by the angel of light. This is the dualism which formed the
essential element of the Manichean speculations, so congenial to the
mystic theogonies of the East, and which was embraced by a portion of
the eastern church, especially by those who were fascinated by the
refinements and pretensions of a philosophy which aimed to solve the
highest problems of existence - the nature of God, and the creation of
man. These daring speculations, which led astray so many inquiring
minds, were, however, too mystical and indefinite to reach the popular
mind, and they pertained to questions which did not shock Christian
instincts, like those which attacked the person or the offices of
Christ. Gnosticism was viewed as a sort of Judaism, inasmuch as it did
not rest its exclusiveness on the title of birth, but on especial
knowledge communicated to the enlightened few. It was a philosophy whose
esoteric doctrines soared above the comprehension of the vulgar; but it
affected more than the surface of society; it poisoned the minds of
those who aspired to lead the intelligence of the age. Its spirit was
antagonistic to the simplicity of the faith, and so, as it prevailed,
was an influence much to be dreaded, and called forth the greatest
energies of the Alexandrian school, in order to defeat it and nullify
it. But its dangerous seeds remained to germinate a rationalistic
theology, especially when united with the Neo-Platonic philosophy.

[Sidenote: Adoption of oriental ceremonies and pomps.]

But the church was not only impregnated with the errors of pagan
philosophy, but it adopted many of the ceremonials of oriental worship,
which were both minute and magnificent. If any thing marked the
primitive church it was the simplicity of worship, and the absence of
ceremonies and festivals and gorgeous rites. The churches became, in the
fourth century, as imposing as the old temples of idolatry. The
festivals became authoritative; at first they were few in number, and
purely voluntary. It was supposed that when Christianity superseded
Judaism, the obligations to observe the ceremonies of the Mosaic law
were abrogated. Neither the apostles nor evangelists imposed the yoke of
servitude, but left Easter and every other feast to be honored by the
gratitude of the recipients of grace. The change in opinion, in the
fourth century, called out the severe animadversion of the historian
Socrates, but it was useless to stem the current of the age. Festivals
became frequent and imposing. The people clung to them because they
obtained a cessation from labor, and obtained excitement. The ancient
rubrics mention only those of the Passion, of Easter, of Whitsunday,
Christmas, and the descent of the Holy Spirit. But there followed the
celebration of the death of Stephen, the memorial of John, the
commemoration of the slaughter of the Innocents, the feast of Epiphany,
the feast of Purification, and others, until the Catholic Church had
some celebration for some saint and martyr for every day in the year.
They contributed to create a craving for an outward religion, which
appealed to the senses and the sensibilities rather than the heart. They
led to innumerable quarrels and controversies about unimportant points,
especially in relation to the celebration of Easter. They produced a
delusive persuasion respecting pilgrimages, the sign of the cross, and
the sanctifying effects of the sacraments. Veneration for martyrs
ripened into the introduction of images - a future source of popular
idolatry. Christianity was emblazoned in pompous ceremonies. The
veneration for saints approximated to their deification, and
superstition exalted the mother of our Lord into an object of absolute
worship. Communion-tables became imposing altars typical of Jewish
sacrifices, and the relics of martyrs were preserved as sacred amulets.

[Sidenote: Monastic life.]

Monastic life ripened also into a grand system of penance, and expiatory
rites, such as characterized oriental asceticism. Armies of monks
retired to gloomy and isolated places, and abandoned themselves to
rhapsodies and fastings and self-expiations, in opposition to the grand
doctrine of Christ's expiation. They despaired of society, and abandoned
the world to its fate - a dismal and fanatical set of men, overlooking
the practical aims of life. They lived more like beasts and savages than
enlightened Christians - wild, fierce, solitary, superstitious, ignorant,
fanatical, filthy, clothed in rags, eating the coarsest food, practicing
gloomy austerities, introducing a false standard of virtue, regardless
of the comforts of civilization, and careless of those great interests
which were intrusted them to guard. They were often men of extraordinary
virtue and influence, and their lives were not assailed by great
temptations. They abstained from marriage, and celibacy came to be
regarded as the angelic virtue - a proof of the highest and purest
Christian life. Vast numbers of men left the sanctities and beatitudes
of home for a cheerless life in the desert, and their gloomy and
repulsive austerities were magnified into extraordinary virtues. The
monks and hermits sought to save themselves by climbing to Heaven by the
same ladder that had been sought by the soofis and the fakirs, - which
delusion had an immense influence in undermining the doctrines of grace.
Christianity was fast merging itself into an oriental theosophy.

[Sidenote: Ambition and wealth of the clergy.]

Again the clergy became ambitious and worldly, and sought rank and
distinction. They even thronged the courts or princes, and aspired to
temporal honors. They were no longer supported by the voluntary
contributions of the faithful, but by revenues supplied by government,
or property inherited from the old temples. Great legacies were made to
the church by the rich, and these the clergy controlled. These bequests
became sources of inexhaustible wealth. As wealth increased, and was
intrusted to the clergy, they became indifferent to the wants of the
people, no longer supported by them. They became lazy, arrogant, and
independent. The people were shut out of the government of the church.
The bishop became a grand personage, who controlled and appointed his
clergy. The church was allied with the state, and religious dogmas were
enforced by the sword of the magistrate. An imposing hierarchy was
established, of various grades, which culminated in the bishop of Rome.
The emperor decided points of faith, and the clergy were exempted from
the burdens of the state. There was a great flocking to the priestly
offices when the clergy wielded so much power, and became so rich; and
men were elevated to great sees, not because of their piety or talents,
but influence with the great. What a falling off from the teachings of
the original clergy, when bishops were the companions of princes rather
than preachers to the poor, and when the clergy could live without the
offerings of the people, and were appointed from favor and not from
merit. The spiritual mission of the church was lost sight of in a
degrading alliance with the state and the world. "Make me bishop of
Rome," said a pagan general, "and I too would become a Christian."

[Sidenote: The church conforms to the world.]

[Sidenote: Christianity produces witnesses, but is not all conquering.]

When Christianity itself was in such need of reform, when Christians
could scarcely be distinguished from pagans in love of display, and in
egotistical ends, how could it reform the world? When it was a pageant,
a ritualism, an arm of the state, a vain philosophy, a superstition, a
formula, how could it save, if ever so dominant? The corruptions of the
church in the fourth century are as well authenticated as the purity and
moral elevation of Christians in the second century. Isaac Taylor has
presented a most mournful view of the state of Christian society when
the religion of the cross had become the religion of the state. And the
corruptions kept pace with the outward triumphs of the faith, especially
when the pagans had yielded to the supremacy of the cross. The same fact
is noticeable in the history of Mohammedanism. When it was first
declared by the extraordinary man who claimed to be the greatest of the
prophets of God, when it was a sublime theism, immeasurably superior to
the prevailing religions of Arabia, and especially when it was
promulgated by moral means, its converts were few, but these were lofty.
When it was extended by an appeal to the sword, and to the bad passions
of men, when it gave a promise of demoralizing joys, and was embraced by
powerful classes and chieftains, it had rapidly extended over Asia and
Africa, and even invaded Europe. Mohammedanism doubtless prevailed in
consequence of its very errors, by adapting itself to the corrupt
inclinations of mankind. If it prospered by means of its truths, why was
its progress so slow when it was comparatively pure and elevated? The
outward triumphs of a religion are no indications of its purity, since
the more corrupt it is the more popular it will be, and the purer it is
the less likely it is to be embraced, except by a few, whom God designs
to be witnesses of his power and truth. Buddhism and Brahminism have
more adherents than Mohammedanism, and Mohammedanism more than
Christianity, and Roman Catholic Christianity has more than
Protestantism, and Protestantism, when it is a life, is narrowed down to
a very small body of believers. Christianity which is popular and
fashionable, is not necessarily elevated and ennobling, and when it is
fashionable or popular is very apt to assume the forms of an imposing
ritualism, or to be blended with philosophical speculations, or to sink
to the degradation of superstitious rites and ceremonies. When
Christianity falls to the level of prevailing fashions and customs and
opinions, it has not a very powerful renovating influence on human life.
The Jesuits made great conquests in Japan and China, but how barren they
have proved. The Puritans planted the barren hills of New England with
stern and rugged believers in a spiritual and personal God, and they
have extended their principles throughout the country. What renovating
influence has the nominal Christianity of South America, or Spain, or
Italy? The religion embraced by the wise and great is apt to become a
rationalism, and that professed by the degraded populace to become a
superstition. The reception of Christianity in the heart implies
sacrifices and self-denial, and will not be cordially embraced except by
a few thus far, in any age. The Lollards in England, in the time of
Henry VII., were a feeble body, but they did more to infuse a religious
life than the whole machinery and influence of the Roman Catholic
Church. And as soon as the Church of England gained over the state, and
became established, it began to degenerate, and had need of successive
reforms. How feeble every form of dissent as a truly renovating power
when it has become triumphant! What have the fashionable court religions
of Europe done towards the real regeneration of society? Protestantism
in Germany, when it was protesting, had a mighty life. When universities
and courts accepted it, it became a poisonous rationalism, or a dead
formula. Puritanism, established in New England just previous to the
Revolution, was a very different thing from what it was when its
adherents were exiles and wanderers. It spread and was honored, but
retained chiefly its forms, its traditions, its animosities. How rapidly
the Huguenots degenerated after the battle of Ivry! Even Jesuitism could
not stand before its own triumphs. Its real life was in the times of
Xavier and Aquaviva, not of Escobar and La Chaise. Any dominant faith
will find its supporters among those whose practical lives are false to
the original principles. Its powers of renovation depend upon its
exalted doctrines, not upon the numbers who profess it, because, when
dominant, men are drawn to it by ambition or interest. They degrade it
more than it elevates them. Hence it would almost seem that
Christianity, in this dispensation, is designed to call out witnesses
of its truths, in every land, the elect of God, rather than to
be a universally renovative power on human institutions. But if it is
destined to be all-conquering, bringing government and science and
social life in harmony with its spirit, as most people believe, and
perhaps with the greatest evidence on their side, still its _real_
conquests must be slow, without supernatural aid. It will spread, from
its inherent life and power; it will become corrupted, and fail to exert
as great a spiritual influence as was hoped; it will be reformed, after
great debasements, when it is scarcely more than a nominal faith, except
among the few witnesses; and the reforming party or sect will gain
ascendency, and in its turn become degenerate and powerless as a
renovating force. So history seems to indicate, from the times of
Theodosius to our own, specially illustrated by the establishment of the
different monastic orders, the great awakenings under Luther and Calvin
and Knox, the successes of Jesuits and Jansenists, the triumphs of the
Puritans, the Quakers, and the Methodists, the rise of Puseyism, or the
Church of England. That Christianity remains vital in the world, and
makes true advances from generation to generation, can scarcely be
questioned. But these advances are slow and delusive. Spiritual power
will pass away as the conquering party gains adherents from the world of
fashion and of rank. It will not become extinct, but the difference
between its true influence, when it is persecuted and when it is
triumphant, is less than generally supposed. The spiritual cannot be
measured by the material. Who can tell wherein true and permanent
influence abides? Who can estimate the power of spiritual agencies? It
is common to speak of enlarged spheres of usefulness; but a clergyman in
a humble parish may set in motion ideas which will have more effect on
the age in which he lives, and on succeeding times, than by any splendid
position in a large and populous city. God seeth not as man seeth. To
fill the sphere which Providence appoints is the true wisdom; to
discharge trusts faithfully and live exalted ideas, that is the mission
of good men.

[Sidenote: Reasons why Christianity did not save the empire.]

Christianity, then, in the fourth century was not more of a renovating
power in consequence of its rapid extension and vast external influence.
It was never more sublime than when it made martyrs and heroes of the
few who dared to embrace its doctrines. There was more hope of its
regenerating the world when it was a continually expanding circle of
devout believers, uncompromising and aggressive, than when it numbered
the wise and noble and mighty, with their old vices and follies. Its
external triumphs rather diminished its spiritual power.

If Christianity failed as a gorgeous ritualism, armed with the weapons
of the state, and allied with pagan philosophy, attractive as it was
made to different classes, where is the hope of the renovation of this
world from the effects of climate, soil, material wealth, and the other
boasts of physical improvements and culture? What a poor basis for the
hopes of man to rest upon is furnished by such guides as the Comtes, the
Buckles, and the Mills? If a fashionable and popular religion could not
save, how can a cold materialism which chains the thoughts to sense, and
confines aspirations to worldly success.

Christianity, as it would seem, did not avert the ruin of the empire,
because, when pure, it had but little influence outside its circle of
esoteric believers, while society was rotten to the core, and was
rapidly approaching a natural dissolution. When it was dominant it
failed, because it was itself corrupted, and the ruin had begun. The
barbarians were advancing to desolate and destroy, were routing armies
and sacking cities and enslaving citizens, when the great fathers of the
church were laying the foundation of a Christian state. The ruin of the
empire was threatening when Christianity was a proscribed and persecuted
faith; it was inevitable when it was grasping the sceptre of princes.

[Sidenote: True mission of the church.]

[Sidenote: The fall of the empire a necessity.]

[Sidenote: The creation which succeeds destruction.]

[Sidenote: What is truly valuable never perishes.]

[Sidenote: Reconstruction.]

Moreover, we take a low and material view of Christianity when we wonder
why it did not save the empire. It was sent to save the world, not the
institutions of an egotistical people. Why should we grieve that it
failed to perpetuate such an organization or government as that wielded
by the emperors? What was a central and proud despotism, with vast
military machinery, and accompanying aristocracies and inequalities, and
the accumulated treasure of all ages and nations on the banks of the
Tiber, compared with a state more favorable for the development of a new
civilization? What does humanity care for the perpetuation of Roman
pride? Providence attaches but little value to human sorrows and
sacrifices, to the melting away of delusions, pomps, vanities, and
follies, compared with the spread of those indestructible ideas on which
are based the real happiness of man. If the empire had withstood the
shock of barbarians, a state would have existed unfavorable to the
higher and future triumphs of the cross. Where was hope, when imperial
despotism, and disproportionate fortunes, and slavery, and the reign of
conventional forms and traditions, and the tyranny of foolish fashions
were likely to be perpetuated? How could Christianity have subverted
these monstrous evils without producing revolutions more blasting than
even barbaric violence? There seem to be some evils so subtle,
poisonous, and deeply-rooted that nothing but violence can remove them.
How long before slavery would have been destroyed in the United States
by any moral means? How could slavery be destroyed when the most
eloquent of Christian teachers were its defenders, and all its kindred
institutions were upheld by the church? So of slavery in the Roman
Empire. There were sixty millions of slaves, not of the posterity of
Ham, but of Shem and Japhet. Every prosperous person was eager to
possess a slave, nor had Christianity openly and signally rebuked such a
gigantic institution. Where was the hope of the abolition of such an
evil when Christianity adapted itself to prevailing fashions and
opinions, and only thought of alleviating some of its worst forms? Would
slaves decrease when worldly men became the overseers of the church, and
emperors presided at councils? Where were the hopes of its abolition
when the whole world was its theatre, and every rich man its defender;
where, instead of four millions, there were sixty millions, and where
the general level of morality and intelligence was lower than it is at
present? So of disproportionate fortunes. They were a hopeless evil. If
aristocratic institutions keep their ground in the best country of
Europe, what must have been the grasp of nobles in the Roman world?
Abandonment to money-making was another social evil. If we in America
cannot weaken its power, even in the most Christian communities; if we
cannot prevent the tyranny of money in our very churches, where we are
reminded every Sunday that it is the root of all evil, yea, when we have

Online LibraryJohn LordThe Old Roman World, : the Grandeur and Failure of Its Civilization → online text (page 46 of 50)