Century IV, Chapter II

CHAP. II.

A VIEW OF THE STATE OF THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION,
ON ITS ESTABLISHMENT UNDER CONSTANTINE.

Chap. Th I s emperor from early life had some predilection ^ ll' . in favour of Christianity. His father Constantius, like Agrippa, had been almost persuaded to be a Christian, and probably the same fear of man and the same love of the world operated as a check upon both. This, however*, we are informed concerning him, that he condemned the polytheism of the times, and worshipped one God, the maker of all things, that he had multitudes of Christians in his palace, and among these,ministers of the Gospel, who openlyprayed forthe emperor. The knowledge of these things, joined to the remarkable contrast between the moral character of his father, and that of the other emperors, must have made some impression in favour of the Christian religion on the intelligent spirit of Constantine, though more pungent views of internal depravity and guilt be needful to induce the mind to enter fully into the spirit of the Gospel. But even a worldly mind may feel the need of divine assistance, when dubious under the prospect of important secular events: And Constantine marching from France into Italy against Maxentius, on an expedition, which was likely either to exalt or to ruin him, was oppressed with anxiety. Some god he thought needful to protect him. The God of the Christians he was most inclined to respect; but he wanted some satisfactory proof of his real existence and power; and he neither understood the means of acquiring this, nor could he be content with the atheistic indifference, in which so many generals and heroes since his time have acquiesced. He prayed, he implored with much vehemence and importunity j and God left him not unanswered. While he was marching with his forces, in the afternoon, the trophy of the Cross appeared very luminous in the heavens, higher than the sun, with this inscription, "Conquer by this f." He and his soldiers were astonished at the sight. But he continued pondering on the event till night. And Christ appeared to him when asleep, with the same sign of the cross, and directed him to make use of the symbol as his military ensign. Constan

* Euseb. Life of Constantine, XVII.
J Tht«; *we«.

Chap, tine obeyed, and the cross was henceforward dist f~ , played in his armies*.

Constantine, who hitherto was totally unacquainted with Christian doctrine, asked the pastors, who this God was, or what was the meaning of the sign. They told him, that it was God, the only-begotten Son of the only true Godf, that the sign was the trophy of the victory, which he when on earth had gained over death. At the same time they explained to him the causes of his coming, and the doctrine of his incarnation. From that time Constantine firmly believed the truth of Christianity. He would have acted irrationally, if he had not; and it were an inexcusable want of candour to ascribe to motives merely political a course of conduct in favour of Christianity, in which he persevered to his death ; and which he began at a time when the triumph of the Christian cause and the success of his arms, as connected with it, were extremely dubious. He began after this to read the Scriptures, and zealously

* I give the narrative of Eusebius as concisely as passible. It is proper to add, that he tells us he had the story of the miraculous appearance in the heavens from the emperor himself a long time after, and that confirmed by an oath. He, who is determined not to believe Christianity to be divine, will doubtless disbelieve this miracle, from the same spirit which has induced him to harden his heart against much more striking evidence. With such a one I would not converse on the subject. But to those who admit the divine origin of Christianity, if any such doubt the truth of the miracle, I would say, that it seems to me more reasonable to admit a divine interposition in a case like this, especially considering the important consequences, than to deny the veracity of Eusebius or of Constantine. On the former view God acts like himself, condescending to hear prayer, leading the mind by temporal kindness to look to him for spiritual blessings, and confirming the truth of his own religion; on the latter, two men not of the very best, but surely by no means of the worst character, are unreasonably suspected of deliberate perjury or falsehood.

f I suspect Eusebius expresses here his own sense of the doctrine of the divinity of Christ, which will be considered hereafter: his words are

patronized the pastors of the Church all his days. Cent. Whether he really loved the Gospel, and felt its t influence on his own heart, is a doubtful question ; but that he believed it to be divinely true, is certain, if a consistent and long course of actions be admitted as evidence.

It belongs to civil history to describe the civil and military transactions of this warlike and magnanimous prince. He was * no sooner made master of Rome by the destruction of Maxentius, than he honoured the cross by putting a spear of that form into the hand of the statute erected for him at Rome. He now built churches, and showed great beneficence to the poor. He encouraged the meeting of bishops in synods, he honoured them with his presence, and employed himself in continually aggrandizing the Church. In the mean time his associate in the East, Licinius, began to persecute it.

Notwithstanding the proofs which this man had had of the divine interposition in favour of the Gospel, during his contest with Maximin, the force of old prejudices imbibed under Galerius operated at length, in conjunction with the native depravity of the human heart, to induce him to renew the persecution. He prohibited Christian synods in his dominions, expelled believers from his court, and forbad the women to attend the public assemblies of men, and ordered them to furnish themselves with separate teachers of their own sex. He dismissed from his armies those who refused to sacrifice, and forbad any supplies to be afforded them in their necessities. He proceeded still further. He murdered bishops, and destroyed churches. At Amasia, in Pontus, his cruelty was particularly distinguished. He used enchantments, and once more

• His victory over the tyrant was providentially striking; and the credulity of Maxentius, and the failure of the heathen oracles, which encouraged him to proceed against Constantine, are no less remarkable. But this is civil history.

Chap. Satan made a feeble attempt to recover by his means **- the ground he had lost. It was not probable that Licinius should take these steps without quarrelling with Constantine, and a war soon commenced between the two princes. Licinius put the truth or falsehood of the Gospel on the event of war. It

A. D. was an unwarranted appeal, but God answered him 324 in his own way. He lost in the issue both his em& pire and his life. It is remarkable, that one of

325. Constantine's soldiers, who parted with the banner, of the cross in battle to save his life, lost it, while he, who in his room supported and upheld the banner, was preserved. It were to be wished, that there had been as much zeal at this time to support the doctrines and realize the power of the cross, as there was to honour its formalities. But this was far from being the case.

For neither in Constantine, nor in his favourite bishops, nor in the general appearance of the church, can we see much of the spirit of godliness. Pompous apparatus, augmented superstitions and unmeaning forms of piety, much show and little substance appears. This is the impression, which the account given by Eusebius has left on my mind. As the matter of my history is very scanty here, I shall endeavour to compress it into a small compass, chiefly with a view to catch the face of Christianity at this period, and to pave the way for a more complete understanding of the great controversy, which must soon arrest our attention.

If we look at the external appearance of Christianity, nothing can be more splendid. An emperor, full of zeal for the propagation of the only divine religion, by edicts restores to the Church every thing of which it had been deprived, indemnifies those who have suffered, honours the pastors exceedingly, recommends to governors of provinces to promote the Gospel; and though he will neither oblige them nor any others to profess it, yet he forbids them to make use of the sacrifices commonly made by prefects; he erects churches exceedingly sumptuous and ornamental, with distinctions of the parts corresponding in some measure to those in Solomon's Temple, discovers with much zeal the sepulchre of Christ at Jerusalem, real or pretended, and honours it with a most expensive sacred edifice. His mother Helena fills the whole Roman world with her munificent acts in support of religion ; and after erecting churches, and travelling from place to place to evidence her zeal, dies before her son, aged eighty years. Nor is the Christian cause neglected even out of the bounds of the Roman empire. Constantine zealously pleads, in a letter to Sapor king of Persia, for the Christians of his dominions : he destroys idol temples, prohibits impious pagan rites, puts an end to the savage fights of gladiators, stands up with respectful silence to hear the sermon of Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, the historian; furnishes him with the volumes of the Scriptures for the use of the churches, orders the observation of the festivals of martyrs, has prayers and reading of the Scripture at his court, dedicates churches with great solemnity, makes Christian orations himself, one of which of a considerable length is preserved by the historian his favourite bishop, directs the sacred observation of the Lord's day, to which he adds that of Friday also, the day of Christ's crucifixion, and teaches the soldiers of his army to pray by a short form made for their use.

It may seem invidious to throw any shade on this picture; but though the abolition of lewd, impious, and inhuman customs must have been of great advantage to society, and though the benefits of Christianity, compared with paganism, to the world, appear very strong by these means ; yet all this, if sound principle be wanting, is but form and shadow. As it was difficult to clear Origen of depreciating the divinity of Christ, so it is still more difficult to exculpate Eusebius, with whom he was a favourite author. Not to anticipate what will more properly pass under examination hereafter, there seems to have been both in Eusebius and some of his friends, and probably in the emperor himself, a disposition, of1 which perhaps they were not conscious, to lessen the honours of the Son of God. In his oration at the dedication of the church at Tyre, he distinguishes between the first and the second cause, and seems very careful to give the supreme title exclusively to the Father. His sermons breathe little of Christianity, so far as I have seen them. He largely assigns various causes for the coming of Christ into the world, and though among these he gives some place to the work of redemption and sacrifice for sin, he speaks of them slightly, and as it were by the bye. I have observed also, that, in one place of his writings, he speaks in a very subordinate manner of the Holy Ghost, though it must be confessed, he is so rhetorical, and indistinct in his theological discourses, that it is difficult to extract any determinate propositions from his writings.

It was to be expected that great defectiveness of doctrine would not fail to influence practice. External piety flourished, monastic societies in particular places were also growing; but faith, love, heavenly-mindedness, appear very rare; yet, among the poor and obscure Christians I hope there was far more godliness than could be seen at courts, and among bishops and persons of eminence. The doctrine of real conversion was very much lost, or external baptism was placed in its stead ; and the true doctrine of justification by faith, and the true practical use of a crucified Saviour for troubled consciences, were scarcely to be seen at this time. There was much outward religion, but this could not make men saints in heart and life. The worst part of the character of Constantine is, that as he grew older, he grew more culpable, oppressive in his own family, oppressive to the government, oppressive by Cent. eastern superfluous magnificence; and the facts to be t ^ displayed will show, how little true humility and charity were now known in the Christian world, while superstition and self-righteousness were making vigorous shoots, and the real Gospel of Christ was hidden from men who professed it.

The schism of the Donatists, as its history throws Donatiitt. some light on the manners of Christians, will deserve a few words in this place. During the cessation of the persecution in the West, while it raged still in the East, on the death of Mensurius bishop of Carthage, a council of neighbouring bishops was called for the appointment of his successor. The council was thinner than had been usual, through the management of Botrus and Celesius, two persons who aspired to the office, whose ambition was however disappointed, the election falling on Caecilian the deacon. All that was essential in the appointment of a bishop was observed in this transaction ; for Caecilian had confessedly the suffrage of the whole church. The two disappointed persons protested against the election, and were joined by Lucilla, a rich lady, who for a long time before had been too haughty to submit to discipline. One Donatus of Casae nigra, who had been a schismatic before this time, offered himself as the chief of the faction. A number of bishops co-operated with him, piqued that they had not been called to the ordination of Caecilian. Seventy bishops, a number of whom had been traditors*, met thus together at Carthage, to depose Caecilian.

The reader will conceive in a strong light, how corrupt the pastors of the African church must have been at that time, when such a number met to impose a bishop on the church of Carthage against the

• A name of infamy given to those who to save their lives in the persecution, had delivered the Scriptures or goods of the church to the persecuting powers.

Chap- general sense of the Christians at that place, and ll- , were at the same time unable to object any one crime, or support the least material accusation against the pastor, who had the hearts of the people. Yet they persevered, and ordained one Majorinus, a servant of the factious lady, who, to support the ordination, gave large sums of money, which the bishops divided among themselves.

Such is the origin of the famous Donatist schism, the second class of dissenters who have appeared in the records of the Church ; but, as in their origin, so in their manners and spirit all along, they seem unworthy to be compared with the first class, the Novatian, which still existed. With these a degree of real spirituality existed; whereas with the Donatist, there does not appear to have been any *.

It would be tedious to enter into a detail of Constantine's proceedings in regard to this sect. Undoubtedly he had a great respect for whatever he conceived to be Christian. With much candour and patience he examined and re-examined the case of the Donatists; and the issue was constantly to their disgrace. They stirred up magistrates to deprive the Christian pastors of the benefit of the imperial laws, by which they were exempted from public offices, and endeavoured to deprive them of their churches, till the emperor was at last provoked to confiscate the places of their assemblies. Silvanus, one of the Donatist bishops, being convicted of having delivered up the vessels of the church, and of being simoniacally ordained a bishop, and of having deprived the Christians of their church, was sent into banishment, with some others of the faction. Yet such was the kindness of Constantine toward the Christian name, that he recalled them from their banishment, and granted religious toleration to the party, of which lenity they continued to make an unworthy use.

» Fleury, B. IX.

How corrupt is human nature ! The Church has Cent. outward peace, and even prosperity. Yet feuds, ^_i^L contentions, and the most unworthy spirit of avarice and ambition, appear very prevalent. So ungrateful were men for that admirable administration of Providence, which as we have seen now took place in their favour. Another scourge seemed quickly necessary, a scourge generated from their own vices indeed, though evidently of divine appointment for the chastisement of the Church. Satan saw his time; pure doctrinal truth was now too commonly mere speculation. Men were ripe for a perversion of doctrine. Lower or ambiguous views of Christ were secretly rising amidst the Platonic studies of learned men. Origen gave the first handle ; Eusebius the historian with cautious prudence was fomenting the evil. And at length a bold and open assault was made against the Deity of the Son of God, and persecution was stirred up against Christians by those who bore the Christian name. The people of God were exercised, refined, and improved; while the Christian world at large was torn in pieces with violence, intrigue, and scandalous animosities, to the grief of all who loved the Son of God, and walked in his ways in godly simplicity.