Century IV, Chapter VII

CHAP. VII.

THE DECLINE OF IDOLATRY IN THIS CENTURY,
TO THE DEATH OF CONSTANTIUS.

It was the character of the ancient Romans to be Chap.
excessively superstitious. While their arms pros- *
pered through Europe and Asia, they were vigilant
and punctual in all the offices of their religion, and
studious of adopting the gods of the nations whom
they conquered, as well as their improvements in arts
and sciences. This religious spirit was the nurse at
least, if not the parent, of many social virtues; in-
dustry, frugality, valour, and patriotism, coalesced
with superstition. With the learning of Greece, at
length, her philosophical scepticism and Epicurean
profaneness were incorporated into the Roman com-
monwealth, and were attended with their usual
vices of luxury and dissipation. The vulgar still be-
lieved, as senators and equestrians were wont to do;
the college of Augurs, the whole apparatus of idola-
try, remained in all their pomp and formality; and
the greatest noblemen thought themselves dignified

* B. II. c. 9, &e.

Chap, by the priesthood, while they inwardly despised

VIIj , what they professed with fictitious reverence.

Little did they think, when a few fishermen and mechanics of Judea began to preach Christ crucified, that the Christian religion was destined to overturn the idolatrous establishment of ages. By our present familiarity with Christian usages, and by the perfect annihilation of Pagan phenomena, we are not prepared to admire so much the work of God in the propagation of his own religion, as it deserves. Were the matter fully considered, it would strike every mind with conviction, that the hand of the Lord hath done this. That zeal, which philosophy had cooled, revived in the minds of polytheists, and produced persecution, as Christianity spread through the nations. A superstitious temper in many of the great and the learned succeeded to the sceptical turn of mind, and mere philosophers themselves, through carnal enmity and political selfishness, aided the intolerant spirit with all their might. We have seen how the Gospel still triumphed without secular support, and have already taken notice of one strong symptom of the decline of Paganism toward the end of the second century, namely, that a new race of philosophers arose, who attempted to form an alliance with Christianity. These new Platonics all owned School'of Ammonius for their master, who, as Eusebius tells us, professed the Gospel to the end of his life. So plainly did Satan feel his inability to crush the Gospel, that he was contented now with labouring to adulterate and undermine it. From this school proceeded Porphyry*, born at Tyre, whose life is written by Eunapius. He studied six years at Rome under Plotinus, whose life he published. Socrates tells usf, that in his early days he was a

* See Lardner's Collection, under the article Porphyry. From him I have derived information on this subject, though obliged to dissent entirely from his opinion, t B. III. c. 83.

Christian ; but having been beaten by some Chris- Cent. tians at Caesarea, through disgust he relinquished the . TM' Gospel. Its hold on his mind must have been extremely weak, when he could be induced to leave it because of the unworthy conduct of some nominal believers. But let Augustine's reflection be heard on this occasion, who thus addresses him : " If ever you had truly and cordially loved divine wisdom, you would have known Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God; nor would you ever have revolted from his most wholesome humility, through the pride of vain knowledge." There remain only some fragments of his fifteen books against the Christians. He shows in them the same malignant spirit which Celsus did, but with superior abilities ; for his capacity and learning were both very eminent.

In his old age he published a work on the Philosophy of Oracles, which has been denied to be his, because he speaks in it very honourably of Christianity, and utters sentiments which one would not expect from a man who had spent a long life in virulent animosity against the followers of Jesus. This enmity is often as strong where it is covered, as when it is open ; and circumstances will dictate a great variety in men's ways of show ing or concealing it. During the Dioclesian persecution, philosophers were not ashamed to persecute. Hierocles has been mentioned, who as a magistrate tortured the Christians, and as a philosopher wrote against them. If he lived to see Christianity established under Constantine, it is not improbable, provided he wrote at all on the subject, that he wrote as Porphyry does in the work before us. Worldly men are moved by good success to admire, by bad to contemn. Even their opinions are superficially swayed by these external things, and yet the latent frame of their spirits remains the same. Porphyry lived, we are told, to an advanced age; and as his work, styled the Philosophy of Oracles, points out the Gospel to be

Chap, then the prevalent religion, it was probably his last ,. v|Ij , production ; and Eunapius owns he left sentiments in his last works different from the former. Yet he never seems with Ammonius to have professed Christianity since his early apostacy. But he confesses that the Barbarians were much in the right, and the Greeks in the wrong. He tells us of Apollo's oracular answers concerning Christ, that his soul after death was immortal, that he was pious and holy, though ignorant Christians do wrong to worship him. Augustine thinks*, that these oracles were invented on purpose to disparage the Christians, by representing them as being allied with Satan. The oracle, whether carried on by Satanic or human fraud, or what seems nearest the truth, by both, would doubtless have a tendency by this means to asperse Christianity. At the same time to praise Christ and to blame his followers, may be conceived to be the natural language of an enemy of God, lying under some restraint; and it has been the common conduct of infidels in our days, who, had they lived in persecuting times, with Celsus would have as freely expressed their contempt of Christ as of his people. Christians are, however, represented by Porphyry as corrupt and erroneous, while their master is honoured as divine. From this view of Porphyry, one may learn something of the policy of Satan and his emissaries in the support of a dying cause. The decay of Paganism is evident, and the arts of philosophic infidelity were then what they are now. Men who know the value of divine truth should guard against these devices, and not suffer themselves to be seduced by an ambiguous and insidious candour. At the same time the progress of error in proud men is strongly illustrated in the case of Porphyry. Men, who have no real experience of the power of godliness, are easily induced to give up its form: if they be men • Civit. Dei. B. XIX

of parts and learning, they are led from one delusion Cent.

to another, till they advance to the farthest limit of ,

malevolence and enmity. Checked they may be by circumstances, and may talk respectfully of Christ to the last; but unless humbled and brought to know themselves, they will live and die the same.

The first measures of Constantine, after his success Policy of in Italy, were to place Christianity on an equal foot- ^*tau* ing with Paganism by the laws, while he gradually patronized the church more and more. Among other improvements in the political and judiciary state of the empire, he abolished the barbarous punishment of crucifixion. After he was become sole master of the empire, he forbade the private exercise of divination, the great bulwark of false religion, still allowing the public use of it at the altars and temples ; and some time after he prohibited the worst branches of sorcery and magic *. He took particular care to secure the observation of the Lord's day, and ordered it to be set apart for prayer ana holy exercises. He openly declared, that he would not oblige men to be Christians, though he earnestly desired they would become so j nor did he abolish the rites of the temples. Finding, however, the Pagans extremely obstinate in the preservation of their superstitions, he publicly exposed the mysteries which had hitherto been kept secret, melted down golden statues, and caused brazen ones to be drawn by ropes through the streets of Constantinople. And some of the temples which had been scenes of horrible wickedness, he destroyed.

In Egypt, the famous cubit, with which the priests were wont to measure the height of the Nile, was kept in the temple of Serapis. This by Constantine's order was removed to the church at Alexandria. The Pagans beheld the removal with indignation, and ventured to predict, that the Nile would no longer overflow its banks. Divine Providence, * Cave's State of Paganism under the first Christian Emperors.

Chap, however, favoured the schemes of Constantine, and t v"- , the Nile the next year overflowed the country in an uncommon degree. In this gradual manner was Paganism overturned ; sacrifices in a partial manner still continued, but the entire destruction of idolatry seemed to be at hand. The temples stood for the most part, though much defaced and deprived of their former dignity and importance. The sons of Constantine trode in his steps, and gradually proceeded in the demolition of Paganism. Under them we find an express edict for the abolition of sacrifices.

Magnentius, the usurper, while master of Rome, allowed the Gentiles to celebrate their sacrifices in the night; but Constantius immediately after his victory took away this indulgence, and solemnly prohibited magic in all its various forms. He also took away the altar and image of Victory, which stood in the portico of the capital. In truth, this emperor was by no means wanting in zeal against idolatry, though his unhappy controversial spirit in defence of Arianism rendered him rather an enemy than a friend to vital godliness.

Such was the state of Paganism at the death of Constantius. Pagans were, however, exceedingly numerous, and enjoyed with silent pleasure the long and shameful scenes of Arian controversy in the church. Nor were they hopeless. The eyes of the votaries of the gods were all directed to his successor, the warlike, the enterprising, the zealous Julian, a determined foe of the Gospel. Great things had been done for the church ; but its rulers of the house of Constantine were weak, and void of true piety. In the warm imaginations of many zealous devotees, even Jupiter himself seemed likely

TO GROW TERRIBLE AGAIN, AND TO BE AGAIN

Adored. This last struggle of expiring Paganism, marked as it is with signal instances of Providence, will deserve particular attention.

CHAP. virr.
Julian's Attempts To Restore Idolatry.