John Lord.

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

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of eloquence? Probably there are more eloquent addresses delivered every
Sunday from the various pulpits of Christendom than were pronounced by
all the orators of Greece during the whole period of her political
existence. Doubtless there are more touching and effective appeals made
to the popular heart every Sunday in every Christian land, than are made
during the whole year beside on subjects essentially secular. Then what
an impulse has pulpit oratory given to objects of a strictly
philanthropic character! The church has been the nurse and mother of all
schemes of benevolence since it was organized. It is itself a great
philanthropic institution, binding up the wounds of the prisoner,
relieving the distressed, and stimulating great enterprises. For all of
this the pulpit has been called upon, and has lent its aid; so that the
world has been more indebted to the eloquence of divines than to any
other source. Who can calculate the moral force of one hundred and fifty
thousand to two hundred thousand Christian preachers in a world like
ours, most of whom are arrayed on the side of morality and learning. It
may be said that these benefits may more properly be considered to flow
from Christianity as revealed in the Bible; that the Bible is the cause
of all this great impulse to civilization. We do not object to such an
interpretation; nevertheless, in specifying the influence of the church,
even before the empire fell, the creation of pulpit eloquence should be
mentioned, since this has contributed so much to the moral elevation of
Christendom. Christianity would be shorn of half her triumphs were it
not for the public preaching of her truths. Paganism had no public
teachers who regularly taught the people and stimulated their noblest
energies. It was a new institution, these Sabbath-day exercises, and has
had an inconceivable influence on the progress and condition of the
race. The power of the Gospel was indeed the main and primary cause; but
the church must have the credit of appropriating what was most prized in
the intellectual centres of antiquity, and giving to it a new direction.
Christian oratory is also an interesting subject to present in merely
its artistical relations. Its vast influence no one can question.

Again, who can estimate the debt which civilization, in its largest and
most comprehensive sense, owes to the fathers of the early church, in
the elaboration of Christian doctrine. They found the heathen world
enslaved by a certain class of most degrading notions of God, of deity,
of goodness, of the future, of rewards and punishments. Indeed, its
opinions were wrong and demoralizing in almost every point pertaining to
the spiritual relations of man. They met the wants of their times by
seizing on the great radical principles of Christianity, which most
directly opposed these demoralizing ideas, and by giving them the
prominence which was needed. Moreover, in the church itself, opinions
were from time to time broached, so intimately allied with pagan
philosophies and oriental theogonies, that the faith of Christians was
in danger of being subverted. The Scriptures were indeed recognized to
contain all that is essential in Christian truth to know; but they still
allowed great latitude of belief, and contradictory creeds were drawn
from the same great authority. If the Bible was to be the salvation of
man, or the great thesaurus of religious truth, it was necessary to
systematize and generalize its great doctrines, both to oppose dangerous
heathen customs and heretical opinions in the church itself. And more
even than this, to set forth a standard of faith for all the ages which
were to come; not an arbitrary system of dogmas, but those which the
Scriptures most directly and emphatically recognized. Christian life had
been set forth by the martyrs in the various forms of teaching, in the
worship of God, in the exercise of those virtues and graces which Christ
had enjoined, in benevolence, in charity, in faith, in prayer, in
patience, in the different relations of social life, in the sacraments,
in the fasts and festivals, in the occupations which might be profitably
and honorably carried on. But Christianity influenced thought and
knowledge as well as external relations. It did not declare a rigid
system of doctrines when first promulgated. This was to be developed
when the necessity required it. For two centuries there were but few
creeds, and these very simple and comprehensive. Speculation had not
then entered the ranks, nor the pagan spirit of philosophy. There was
great unity of belief, and this centered around Christ as the Redeemer
and Saviour of the world. But, in process of time, Christianity was
forced to contend with Judaism, with Orientalism, and with Greek
speculation, as these entered into the church itself, and were more or
less embraced by its members. With downright Paganism there was a
constant battle; but in this battle all ranks of Christians were united
together. They were not distracted by any controversies whether idolatry
should be or should not be tolerated. But when Gnostic principles were
embraced by good men, those which, for instance, entered into monastic
or ascetic life, it was necessary that some great genius should arise
and expose their oriental origin, and lay down the Christian law
definitely on that point. So when Manichaeism, and Arianism, and other
heretical opinions, were defended and embraced by the Christians
themselves, the fathers who took the side of orthodoxy in the great
controversies which arose, rendered important services to all subsequent
generations, since never, probably, were those subtle questions
pertaining to the Trinity, and the human nature of Christ, and
predestination, and other kindred topics, discussed with so much acumen
and breadth. They occupied the thoughts of the whole age, and emperors
entered into the debates on theological questions with an interest
exceeding that of the worldly matters which claimed their peculiar
attention. It is not easy for Christians of this age, when all the great
doctrines of faith are settled, to appreciate the prodigious excitement
which their discussion called forth in the times of Athanasius and
Augustine. The whole intellect of the age was devoted to theological
inquiries. Everybody talked about them, and they were the common theme
on all public occasions. If discussions of subjects which once had such
universal fascination can never return again, if they are passed like
Olympic games, or the discussions of Athenian schools of philosophy, or
the sports of the Colosseum, or the oracles of Dodona, or the bulls of
mediaeval popes, or the contests of the tournament, or the "field of the
cloth of gold," they still have a historical charm, and point to the
great stepping-stones of human progress. If they are really grand and
important ideas, which they claimed to be, they will continue to move
the most distant generations. If they are merely dialectical deductions,
they are among the profoundest efforts of reason in the Christian
schools of philosophy.

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.
The _Magnificat_ 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.

The great idea of Christian equality struck at the root of that great
system of slavery which was one of the main causes of the ruin of the
empire. Christianity did not break up slavery; it might never have
annihilated it under a Roman rule, but it protested against it so soon
as it was clothed with secular power. As in the sight of heaven there is
no distinction of persons, so the idea of social equality gained ground
as the relations of Christianity to practical life were understood. The
abolition of slavery, and the general amelioration of the other social
evils of life, are all a logical sequence from the doctrine of Christian
equality, - that God made of one blood all the nations of the earth, that
they are equally precious in his sight, and have equal claims to the
happiness of heaven. All theories of human rights radiate from, and
centre around, this consoling doctrine. That we are born free and equal
may not, practically, be strictly true; but that the relations of
society ought to be viewed as they are regarded in the Scriptures, which
reveal the dignity of the soul and its glorious destinies, cannot be
questioned; so that oppression of man by man, and injustice, and unequal
laws militate with one of the great fundamental revelations of God.
Impress Christian equality on the mind of man, and social equality
follows as a matter of course. The slave was recognized to be a man, a
person, and not a thing. Whenever he sat down, as he did once a week,
beside his master, in the adoration of a common Lord, the ignominy of
his hard condition was removed, even if his obligations to obedience
were not abrogated. As a future citizen of heaven, his importance on the
earth was more and more recognized, until his fetters were gradually

From the day when Christian equality was declared, the foundations of
slavery were assailed, and the progress of freedom has kept pace with
Christian civilization, although the Apostles did not directly denounce
the bondage that disgraced the ancient world. It was something to
declare the principles which, logically carried out, would ultimately
subvert the evil, for no evil can stand forever which is in opposition
to logical deductions from the truths of Christianity. Moral philosophy
is as much a series of logical deductions from the doctrine of loving
our neighbor as ourself as that great network of theological systems
which Augustine and Calvin elaborated from the majesty and sovereignty
of God. Those distinctions which Christ removed by his Gospel of
universal brotherhood can never return or coexist with the progress of
the truth. A vast social revolution began when the eternal destinies of
the slave were announced. It will not end with the mere annihilation of
slavery as an institution; it will affect the relations of the poor and
the rich, the unlucky and the prosperous, in every Christian country
until justice and love become dominant principles. What a stride from
Roman slavery to mediaeval serfdom! How benignant the attitude of the
church, in all ages, to the poor man! The son of a peasant becomes a
priest, and rises, in the Christian hierarchy, to become a ruler of the
world. There was no way for a poor peasant boy to rise in the Middle
Ages, except in the church. He attracts the notice of some beneficent
monk; he is educated in the cloister; he becomes a venerated brother, an
abbot, perhaps a bishop or a pope. Had he remained in service to a
feudal lord, he never could have risen above his original rank. The
church raises him from slavery, and puts upon his brow her seal and in
his hands the thunderbolts of spiritual power, thus giving him dignity
and consideration and independence. Rising, as the clergy did in the
Middle Ages, in all ages, from the lower and middle classes, they became
as much opposed to slavery as they were to war. It was thus in the bosom
of the church that liberty was sheltered and nourished. Nor has the
church ever forgotten her mission to the poor, or sympathized, as a
whole, with the usurpations of kings. She may have aimed at dominion,
like Hildebrand and Innocent III., but it was spiritual domination,
control of the mind of the world. But she ever sympathized with
oppressed classes, like Becket, even as he defied the temporal weapons
of Henry II. The Jesuits, even, respected the dignity of the poor. Their
errors were trust in machinery and unbounded ambition, but they labored
in their best ages for the good of the people. And in our times, the
most consistent and uncompromising foes of despotism and slavery are in
the ranks of the church. The clergy have been made, it is true,
occasionally, the tools of despotism, and have been absurdly
conservative of their own privileges, but on the whole, have ever lifted
up their voices in defense of those who are ground down.

The elevation of woman, too, has been caused by the doctrine of the
equality of the sexes which Christianity revealed; not "woman's rights"
as interpreted by infidels; not the ignoring of woman's destiny of
subservience to man, as declared in the Garden of Eden and by St. Paul,
but her glorious nature which fits her for the companionship of man.
Heathendom reduces her to slavery, dependence, and vanity. Christianity
elevates her by developing her social and moral excellences, her more
delicate nature, her elevation of soul, her sympathy with sorrow, her
tender and gracious aid. The elevation of woman did not come from the
natural traits of Germanic barbarians, but from Christianity. Chivalry
owes its bewitching graces to the influence of Christian ideas. Clemency
and magnanimity, gentleness and sympathy, did not spring from German
forests, but the teachings of the clergy. Veneration for woman was the
work of the church, not of pagan civilization or Teutonic simplicity.
The equality of the sexes was acknowledged by Jerome when he devoted
himself to the education of Roman matrons, and received from the hand of
Paula the means of support while he, labored in his cell at Bethlehem.
How much more influential was Fabiola or Marcella than Aspasia or
Phryne! It was woman who converted barbaric kings, and reigned, not by
personal charms, like Eastern beauties, but by the solid virtues of the
heart. Woman never occupied so proud a position in an ancient palace as
in a feudal castle. When Paula visited the East, she was welcomed by
Christian bishops, and the proconsul of Palestine surrendered his own
palace for her reception, not because she was high in rank, but because
her virtues had gone forth to all the world; and when she died, a great
number of the most noted people followed her body to the grave with
sighs and sobs. The sufferings of the female martyrs are the most
pathetic exhibitions of moral greatness in the history of the early
church. And in the Middle Ages, whatever is most truly glorious or
beautiful can be traced to the agency of woman. Is a town to be spared
for a revolt, or a grievous tax remitted, it is a Godiva who intercedes
and prevails. Is an imperious priest to be opposed, it is an Ethelgiva
who alone dares to confront him even in the king's palace. It is
Ethelburga, not Ina, who reigns among the Saxons - not because the king
is weak, but his wife is wiser than he. A mere peasant-girl, inspired
with the sentiment of patriotism, delivers a whole nation, dejected and
disheartened, for such was Joan of Arc. Bertha, the slighted wife of
Henry, crosses the Alps in the dead of winter, with her excommunicated
lord, to remove the curse which deprived him of the allegiance of his
subjects. Anne, Countess of Warwick, dresses herself like a cook-maid to
elude the visits of a royal duke, and Ebba, abbess of Coldingham, cuts
off her nose, to render herself unattractive to the soldiers who ravage
her lands. Philippa, the wife of the great Edward, intercedes for the
inhabitants of Calais, and the town is spared.

The feudal woman gained respect and veneration because she had the moral
qualities which Christianity developed. If she entered with eagerness
into the pleasures of the chase or the honor of the banquet, if she
listened with enthusiasm to the minstrel's lay and the crusader's tale,
her real glory was her purity of character and unsullied fame. In
ancient Rome men were driven to the circus and the theatre for amusement
and for solace, but among the Teutonic races, when converted to
Christianity, rough warriors associated with woman without seductive
pleasures to disarm her. It was not riches, nor elegance of manners, nor
luxurious habits, nor exemption from stern and laborious duties which
gave fascination to the Christian woman of the Middle Ages. It was her
sympathy, her fidelity, her courage, her simplicity, her virtues, her
noble self-respect, which made her a helpmeet and a guide. She was
always found to intercede for the unfortunate, and willing to endure
suffering. She bound up the wounds of prisoners, and never turned the
hungry from her door. And then how lofty and beautiful her religious
life. History points with pride to the religious transports and
spiritual elevation of Catharine of Sienna, of Margaret of Anjou, of
Gertrude of Saxony, of Theresa of Spain, of Elizabeth of Hungary, of
Isabel of France, of Edith of England. How consecrated were the labors
of woman amid feudal strife and violence. Whence could have arisen such
a general worship of the Virgin Mary had not her beatific loveliness
been reflected in the lives of the women whom Christianity had elevated?
In the French language she was worshiped under the feudal title of Notre
Dame, and chivalrous devotion to the female sex culminated in the
reverence which belongs to the Queen of Heaven. And hence the qualities
ascribed to her, of Virgo Fidelis, Mater Castissima, Consolatrix
Afflictorum, were those to which all lofty women were exhorted to
aspire. The elevation of woman kept pace with the extension of
Christianity. Veneration for her did not arise until she showed the
virtues of a Monica and a Nonna, but these virtues were the fruit of
Christian ideas alone.

We might mention other ideas which have entered into our modern
institutions, such as pertain to education, philanthropy, and missionary
zeal. The idea of the church itself, of an esoteric band of Christians
amid the temptations of the world, bound together by rules of discipline
as well as communion of soul, is full of grandeur and beauty. And the
unity of this church is a sublime conception, on which the whole
spiritual power of the popes rested when they attempted to rule in peace
and on the principles of eternal love. However perverted the idea of the
unity of the church became in the Middle Ages, still who can deny that
it was the mission of the church to create a spiritual power based on
the hopes and fears of a future life? The idea of a theocracy forms a
prominent part of the polity of Calvin, as of Hildebrand himself. It is
the basis of his legislation. He maintained it was long concealed in the
bosom of the primitive church, and was gradually unfolded, though in a
corrupt form, by the popes, the worthiest of whom kept the idea of a
divine government continually in view, and pursued it with a clear
knowledge of its consequences. And those familiar with the lofty schemes
of Leo and Gregory, will appreciate their efforts in raising up a power
which should be supreme in barbarous ages, and preserve what was most to
be valued of the old civilization. The autocrat of Geneva clung to the
necessity of a spiritual religion, and aimed to realize that which the
Middle Ages sought, and sought in vain, that the church must always
remain the mother of spiritual principles, while the state should be the
arm by which those principles should be enforced. Like Hildebrand, he
would, if possible, have hurled the terrible weapon of excommunication.
In cutting men off from the fold, he would also have cut them off from
the higher privileges of society. He may have carried his views too far,
but they were founded on the idea of a church against which the gates of
hell could not prevail. Who can estimate the immeasurable influence of
such an idea, which, however perverted, will ever be recognized as one

Online LibraryJohn LordThe Old Roman World, : the Grandeur and Failure of Its Civilization → online text (page 49 of 50)