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Century IV, Chapter V

CHAP. V.

IV.

A VIEW OF MONASTICISM AND OTHER MISCELLANEOUS CIRCUMSTANCES, FROM THE ESTABLISHMENT OF CHRISTIANITY UNDER CONSTANTINE, TO THE DEATH OF CONSTANTIUS.

It seemed most convenient to preserve the con-
nexion of the Arian controversy without interrup-
tion. If the evangelical reader has not gained
mnch information concerning the spirit of true re-
ligion, during this violent contest, the times and
the materials must bear the blame. There were
probably, in that whole period, many sincere souls,
who mourned in secret over the abominations of
the age ; but history, ever partial to the great, and
dazzled with the splendor of kings and bishops,
condescends not to notice them. The people of
God were in lower life, and remain, therefore, un-
known. We left Athanasius in the desert, where
he employed the leisure, which the iniquity of the
persecution gave him, in visiting the monks. He Death of
had been acquainted with their most renownedleader ^Monk
Anthony, but had not the satisfaction to meet with A- D
him again, he dying in the beginning of the year <jej6.
356. Let us leave Athanasius and the Arian con-
troversy awhile, and see what we can find concerning
the monks, and other particulars of the dealings of
God with his Church in the mean time.

We are not to form an idea of ancient monks from modern ones. It was a mistaken thing in holy men of old to retire altogether from the world. But there is every reason to believe the mistake originated in piety. We often hear it said, how ridiculous to think of pleasing God by austerities and solitude! Far be it from me to vindicate the superstitions of monks, and particularly the vows of celibacy. But the error is very natural, has been reprehended much too severely, and the profaneness of men of the world is abundantly more dangerous. The enormous evils of Monasticism are to be ascribed to its degeneracy in after-times, not to its first institution. What could for instance be better intentioned, than the determination of Anthony to follow literally our Lord's rule, " Sell what thou hast, and give to the poor?" Say that he was ignorant and superstitious; he was both : but he persevered to the age of a hundred and five years in voluntary poverty with admirable consistency. Surely it could be no slight cause that could move a young person of opulence to part with all, and live in the abstemiousness of a solitary life with such unshaken perseverance. Let us, from the memorials of his life, written by Athanasius, omitting the miracles which the then fashionable credulity imposed on men, endeavour to collect, as far as we can, a just idea of his spirit.

Athanasius tells us that he had often seen him, and had received information concerning him from his servant. It was a great disadvantage to Anthony's judgment, that he was unwilling to be instructed in literature. There is a medium in all things secular. We have seen numbers corrupted by an excess of literary attachments : we see here one misled by the want of proper cultivation. When a youth, he had heard read in the church our Lord's words to the rich young man, and his ignorance led him to sell all, and give to the poor, and enter into the monastic life. Monks, as yet, had not learned to live in perfect deserts unconnected with mankind, and hitherto they lived at a small distance from their own village. Anthony endeavoured to form himself on the severest models, and pushed the genius of solitude to rigours before unknown. His fame increased ; he was looked on as a mirror of perfection, and the Egyptians were studious to follow his example. His instructions to those who listened to him are not, in general, worth transcribing. The faith of Christ is very obscure, at least in the best of them ; yet his sincerity is evident; his love to divine things must have been ardent; his conflicts and temptations, which are confusedly written by Athanasius, demonstrated a mind too humble, and kno»iug too much of himself, to trust in his own righteousness. He preached well by his life, and temper, and spirit, however he might fail in doctrinal knowledge.

In the persecution by Dioclesian he left his beloved solitude, and came to Alexandria, strengthening the minds of Christian sufferers, exposing himself to danger for the love of the brethren, and yet not guilty of the excess of delivering up himself to martyrdom. In all this there was what was better than the monk,—the sincere and charitable Christian. Nor did he observe to perfection the rules of solitude. There were two sorts of monks, the solitary, and those who lived in societies. Anthony, though he had a strong inclination to follow the first sort altogether, sometimes joined the latter, and even on some occasions appeared in the world.

The Arian heresy gave him another opportunity of showing his zeal. He again entered Alexandria, and protested against its impiety, which, he observed, was of a piece with heathenism itself. " Be assured," said he, "allnature is moved with indignation against those who reckon the Creator of all things to be a creature." And this is one circumstance, which convinces me, that genuine godliness, the offspring of Christian principles, must have been with the primitive monks, because they generally vindicated the Nicene faith, and could not endure Arianism. Tbey must, many of them at least, have felt the motions of the divine life, which will not connect itself with any principles that depreciate the dignity of Jesus Christ.

VOL. II. H

In conversing with Pagan philosophers, he observed, that Christianity held the mystery, not in the wisdom of Grecian reasoning, but in the power of faith supplied to them from God by Jesus Christ. " Faith," says he, " springs from the affection of the mind ; Logic from artificial contrivance. Those who have the energy that is by faith, need not perhaps the demonstration that comes by reasoning." He very justly appealed to the glorious fruits of Christianity in the world, and exhorted the philosophers "to believe and know that the Christian art is not merely verbal, but of faith which worketh by love, with which ye being once endowed, shall not need demonstrations by arguments, but shall deem these words of Anthony sufficient to lead you to the faith of Christ."

The* evangelical reader will see here something better than mere monasticism. But he sullied all this by a foolish attempt, to make mankind believe, that he lived without food, while he ate in secret, and by a vain parade of conversation concerning temperance, which savoured more of Pythagorean fanaticism than of Christian piety. In his extreme old age he gave particular directions, that his body should be interred, not preserved in a house after the Egyptian manner of honouring deceased saints and martyrs, and charged his two attendants to let no man know the place of his burial. "At the resurrection of the dead I shall receive my body," says he, "from the Saviour incorruptible." He guarded his friends against the Arian heresy, and bade them notbe disturbed, though the judicial power, an imaginary fading domination, should be against them. " Do ye observe what ye have received from the fathers, and particularly the pious faith in our Lord

* Possibly the attentive reader may observe, without my mentioning it, that I have seen, on a closer inspection, reason to think better of Anthony, than from the short account of him in Vol. I. pp. 524, 525, one might seem to conclude.

Jesus Christ, which ye have heard from the Scriptures, and of which I have often reminded you. Divide my clothes in this manner: Give one of my sheep-skins to the bishop Athanasius, together with the garment which I received from him when new, and now return him when old. And give the other sheep-skin to Serapion the bishop. The sackcloth keep for yourselves," says he to his two attendants. " Farewell, children, Anthony is going, and is no more with you." He stretched out his feet, and appearing pleased at the sight of his friends coming to him, he expired with evident marks of cheerfulness on his face. His last will was punctually executed. Such was the death of this father of monasticism : the account is taken wholly from his life by Athanasius, and is a monument of the genuine piety and deep superstition both of the monk and his biographer. Such was the state of godliness in those times, existing obscure in hermitages; while abroad in the world the Gospel was almost buried in faction and ambition; yet probably in ordinary life it thrived the best in some instances, though quite unknown.

By the assistance of Fleury, it would be easy to enlarge the history of men of this sort. There were others of great monastic renown in the time of Anthony. But their narratives, if true, are neither entertaining nor instructive, and a great part of them at least is stuffed with extravagant fables. Let us turn to other objects. At the time when the bishops were travelling to the council of Nice, Licinius, bishop of Csesarea in Cappadocia, in his way thither, arrived at a small town called Nazianzum in Cappadocia. There he met with Gregory, afterwards bishop of Nazianzum, who applied for baptism. This man had led a life of great moral strictness, belonging to a particular sect, who observed the Sabbath and a distinction of meats like the Jews. His wife Nonna was an exemplary Christian, and was very instrumental in her husband's conversion. There is reason to hope it was a conversion from self-righteous pride to the humble faith of Jesus. Licinius instructed him: he received baptism, and some years afterwards, was made bishop of the place, and remained in that office forty-five years, to an extreme old age. Though advanced in years, when he applied himself to Christian learning, he acquired a just discernment, preserved his flock from the spreading infection of Arianism, and mollified the manners of the barbarous people. Possibly the memoirs of his pastoral labours, if we had them, might be found more instructive than most of the subjects which engage our attention in this period. Gregory's episcopal character commenced about the year 328. And this tribute seemed due to his memory and to that of his wife, not only on their own accounts, but also because they were the parents of the famous Gregory of Nazianzum, who in an oration celebrates their piety.

If we look to the situation of the ancient heretics, we find them in a dwindling state. The followers of Marcion, Valentinian, and the rest, still subsisted indeed, and an edict of Constantine forbade their assembling together. Under this act of Uniformity the Novatians were condemned also. Thus the best of the Dissenters were not permitted to worship in their own way, while the Donatists, the worst, were in a manner tolerated. But in vain do we look either for wisdom or equity in the ecclesiastical proceedings of Constantine or any of his family in general. Two only of the persecuted sects, the Meletians and the Donatists, were not mentioned in the edict, as far as one can judge, and, in consequence of this omission, they subsisted, and weathered the force of the decree. The old heresies were crushed, while the enthusiastic Montanists maintained their hold in their native Phrygia, and the Novatians remained still numerous, retaining narrow views of church discipline, and with these a considerable Cent. strictness of manners, and it is hoped, the good in- . ^ fluence of the Divine Spirit. But we want better materials for the history of this people.

At the very time, when Athanasius was persecuted at Tyre, and was thought unworthy to live at Alexandria, the bishops were employed also in dedicating the church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem. Its magnificence was a monument of the ostentatious superstition of Constantine. It is foreign to our design to describe its expensive pomp. On this occasion, Jerusalem, which from the time of Adrian had been called in /Elia *, recovered its name, became the resort of Christian pilgrims, was vainly represented f by some as the new Jerusalem described by the prophets, and was held in great veneration by sermons, acts of liberality, and panegyrics on the emperor. In these things the historian Eusebius was signally distinguished. Here Arius was received; and thus that Scripture was fulfilled concerning the hypocrisy of professors of religion in the Christian times, " Your brethren that hated you, and cast you out for my name's sake, said, Let the Lord be glorified J." The enmity against real godliness was varnished with a parade of external piety; pomp supplied the room of sincerity, and formality usurped the place of spiritual understanding.

Not long before his death, Constantine wrote to Anthony the monk, and begged an answer. The reflection which he made on the occasion showed at once his ignorance of secular affairs, and his knowledge of divine things. Be not astonished, says he, if an emperor writes to us. He is but a man: rather be astonished, that God should write a book for man, and deliver it to us by his own Son. He answered the emperor, desiring him not to esteem present things, to think of the future judgment, to

* jElia Capitolina, because rebuilt by JEliae Adrianus.
f Fleury, B. XI. 54. % Isaiah, btvi. 5.

Chap- remember that Jesus Christ is the true and eternal l\ , king; to be merciful, to do justice, and particularly to take care of the poor.

Under Constantius an attempt was made to reunite the Donatists to the general church. The consequence was, that a number were formally recovered to it. The body of them remained, what they always were, an unworthy people, and they had among them a sort of wild licentious persons called Circumcelliones, who were very violent and ferocious in their conduct.