bon, written in a spirit of historic indifference, with no apologetic or polemic bias, will always maintain its place, and, so far as it covers the ground, approve itself as a faithful report of the facts of the time. But in Gibbon, also, I miss the faculty of historic divination, the sense which discerns the deeper meaning of the facts recorded, which interprets historic results in the light of their bearing on the whole of human destiny. We have no history of the origins of the Christian Church from a humanitarian or, if I may use so pedantic a phrase, from an anthropocosmic point of view; no history inspired by the questions, What is humanity's debt to the Church? what is Christianity's place in the education of humankind? The time and the man for such a history have not yet arrived. Meanwhile, the histories we have will be found most instructive, when studied in that


The Christian Church and the Roman empire were contemporary, or nearly contemporary, births. The latter came armed from the throes of a naval conflict in the waters of the Ambracian Gulf: the former sprang to life, a babbling babe, in a garret of an inland city, shut in by inhospitable hills. What shall be the fortunes respectively of these newcomers on the stage of history? The one is backed and omened by a pedigree of heroes and seven centuries of victory; the other, by the humble if saintly life and tragic death of one who had recently perished as a malefactor. To balance this inequality, the latter is inspired by a faith in its own future, immeasurable, indomitable: the other derives its sole guaranty from favoring circumstance.

Could not the two unite in one dominion? There was a moment when such a coalition seemed possible. The Emperor Tiberius is said to have proposed to the Roman senate the admission of Christ to a place in the Pantheon, and his consequent solemn recognition as one of the gods of the State. It is a curious question, what would have been the effect of such recognition, had that proposition been accepted, had Christianity enjoyed at the start the sanction of

[ocr errors][ocr errors][merged small][merged small][merged small][ocr errors][merged small][ocr errors][merged small]

imperial power. Its spread might have been more rapid, but the strength that was in it, its latent moral force, would never have asserted itself. It needed the hardening by fire to which the wantonness of imperial cruelty subjected it in its infancy, in order to become the world-subduing power it was destined to be. It could not accept as a gift what it felt itself entitled to by divine right. It could not “borrow leave to be,” but must conquer for itself — not with sword, like armed Islam in a later age, but by miracles of patience, by suffering and dying - an unprecarious throne. Constitutionally exclusive, it must put all things under it. It must reign supreme; it must reign alone.

Such a consummation seemed, from a worldly point of view, an impossibility. For, though the dominant religion was inwardly dead, though polytheism as a faith, as personal conviction, had lost its hold of educated minds, it was still politically seized of the Roman State, and not to be evicted but with mortal agony and throes that upheaved the world. Theodor Keim * calls attention to the fact that the Roman religion, unlike all others, originated not with priest or prophet, but with the secular power. It was, therefore, from the first, indissolubly linked with the State. Conceive, then, a government, powerful as none ever was before or since in all the elements of civil strength, and jealous as it was powerful, impatient of opposition, prompt to crush whatever opposed, - a government whose sleepless vigilance and omnipresent police not a thing that occurred in any corner of its wide dominion could escape, - a government whose head was also the head of the national religion, himself an object of worship, to refuse which worship was treason to the State,– to such a government comes this vagabond from the East, from a land universally despised, and seeks to establish itself in the capital of the empire. Ignominiously repulsed, it continues to advance. Smitten and cast out, it steadily prevails, and, having entered as an outlaw, ends as sovereign of the world. Its triumph is the supreme miracle of history,

The fierce rebuff which Christianity encountered, at the



* In hts Rom und Christenthum.

point where it first emerges into secular history, revealed, on the part of the Christians, a power of endurance which should bave taught the secular authorities that the “pestilent" novelty was not to be disposed of in that fashion, Meanwhile, by the light of those cruel fires in the gardens of Nero, the “disciples” might see how wide was the chasm which then divided their Church from the State. Three centuries were required to bridge that gulf, and this the Church accomplished by casting into it the children of her bosom, over whose mangled bodies humanity made the dire passage from the old world to the new,

An inscription at the entrance of the Catacombs of St. Sebastian, in Rome, tells of one hundred and seventy-four thousand martyrs who there repose in peace. It is not necessary to suppose that all these were the immediate victims of civil persecution. But, in any view, this record of a single city suggests an estimate very different from that which Gibbon would have us accept as the number of those who suffered martyrdom throughout the vast extent of the empire.* The precise number does not concern us, nor even the approximate number; enough that torture and death were the frequent penalty of the Christian confession in those centuries,– torture and death the most excruciating that human ingenuity could devise, and that these were voluntarily incurred and unflinchingly borne by the victims. It was not their belief that the government quarreled with, it was not their doctrine that was punished, but their insubordination in refusing to sacrifice. In the view of the government, the Christians were a political party, insurgents against the State, whose head they refused to honor in the way prescribed. It was not a question of opinion, but one of obedi

Will you or will you not sacrifice to the emperor? Will you “swear by the genius,” that is, acknowledge the divinity of Cæsar? To the government official it was simply a token of submission to rightful authority, but to the Christian it meant something else: it meant that Cæsar was before Christ, that Cæsar was God. With that under


*"Somewhat less than two thousand persons." See Milman's Gibbon, Vol. I., p. 699.

[ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small][merged small]

standing, young and old, delicate women, nursing mothers, suffered their flesh to be torn with red-hot pincers and would not commit the saving act.

Martyrdom is no proof of the truth of a religion, that is, of the truth of the opinions held by its votaries. Quite opposite opinions have had their martyrs. What it does prove, when it reaches the scope and strain of the Christian martyrologies, is — Spirit. The action of a spirit which transcends the ordinary limits and capabilities of human nature, takes captive the will, and makes it at once an invincible bar and an all-conquering force. The political success of Christianity was the work of that spirit. The secondary causes, by which Gibbon attempts to explain that success, are well put, but Gibbon does not perceive that those causes themselves require to be explained. Compact organization. What compacted it? Austere morals, intolerant zeal, belief in immortality. Yes! but whence derived, the morals, the zeal, the belief? How came they at that particular crisis to develop such exceptional potency? They point to another factor inspiration. It is the fashion of the current philosophy to derive new births from old antecedents by way of evolution. But there are births which this philosophy does not explain. Christianity had no such genesis. It cannot be said, in any proper sense, to be an evolution of Judaism, any more than Islam was an evolution of Christianity. Judaism was its matrix but not its sire. If in any sense “evolved ” from given antecedents, it was as the whirlwind is evolved from atmospheric heat. This great world-force, which came with “ a sound as of a rushing, mighty wind ” and went cycloning through the lands, was surely no product of Mosaic tradition, but the immediate offspring of a Spirit which conducts the education of the human race and from time to time interpolates the course of events with new motives adjusted to a preordained ascending scale of spiritual life. I say interpolates, for is not all inspiration interpolation? A lift that breaks the dead mechanical sequence of things.

It is not to be supposed that all who joined the Christian confession partook of this spirit. Many were drawn to it by

[ocr errors]

quite earthly motives,- by the hope of a social revolution, the coming of a new kingdom in which, having nothing to lose, they might reasonably hope to gain; by the charm of equality, by the communism which secured them against want, as we learn from Lucian, an unintentional witness of the charity of the early Church. And there were lapses in times of persecution. The Church could afford them; the Church could afford to take back the lapsed, when persecution ceased. It was not the aim of the Spirit to have a faultless Church, a Church composed entirely of the “ Katharoi.” A mixture of tares with the wheat was not fatal to the Church, did not prevent its being a true Church, as Cyprian, earliest exponent of the Catholic idea, maintained in opposition to Novatian purists.

Nor did the Spirit care to have a constituency of such as are called in worldly phrase "respectable” people. Socially and intellectually, they seem to have been, with few exceptions, a low class,—“not many wise after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble.” Paul, the high-hearted Roman citizen, who bravely cast in his lot with these people, could see with prophetic vision, how God was going to put to shame the wise and the strong by means of the weak and foolish, and the low. But how would it strike an outsider? Is it surprising that men of culture and good position, men like Tacitus and Suetonius, should have looked with contempt on the Christian Church, when they saw what sort of people it drew to its communion,– restless spirits, malecontents, radicals of every stripe, occasionally slaves, as we infer from the allusion to those of Cæsar's household, now and then an adventurer like Peregrinus Proteus ? Not the kind of people that a self-respecting citizen would care to consort with. And I suppose that few of us, had we lived in those days, and had not caught, or been caught by, the Spirit, would have cared to be found in such company. And, when I see Christian zealots, proud of their orthodoxy, with conscious holiness looking down upon heretics and flouting new departures in theology, I amuse myself with thinking how heartily, had they been contemporaries of Paul,

« VorigeDoorgaan »