THE HERESY OF PRISCILLIAN THE CONDUCT OF
MARTIN THE PROGRESS OF SUPERSTITION.
I Join these subjects together, to connect the Chap. ecclesiastical information of Sulpitius Severus, an , XIVhistorian who belongs to this period, an Aquitanian of great learning, and who wrote a summary of Church history, which he extended to his own times. What he records of transactions which passed within his own memory, and also what he collected by information of other parts of the empire, may deserve to be very briefly reviewed. Very little shall we find adapted to our purpose; the deep decline of evangelical purity will be the chief discovery we shall make: and he will thus make my apology for evidencing so little of the spirit of Christianity at this period, because so little is to be found.
The Priscillianists, a heretical sect, who seem to have combined all the most pernicious heresies of former times, had already appeared in the time of Gratian, and infected the greatest part of Spain. Priscillian himself, whose character is described by the classical pen of Sulpitius with much elegance and energy *, was exactly fitted for the office which
by his importunate solicitations, and saved the life of the con-
* Sulp. Sev. p. 419.
he filled: learned, eloquent, factious, acute, of great powers both of body and mind, and by a spurious modesty and gravity of manners, extremely well qualified to maintain an ascendancy over weak and credulous spirits. Idacius and Ithacius, the one an aged presbyter, the other bishop of Sossuba, applied to the secular power, in order that, by the decrees of the magistrates, the heretics might be expelled from the cities. The Priscillianists endeavoured to gain friends in Italy; but their corruptions were too glaring to procure them any countenance either from Damasus of Rome, or from Ambrose of Milan.
On the death of Gratian, Maximus the usurper entered victorious into Treves. While Ithacius earnestly pressed him against the Priscillianists, the heresiarch himself appealed to Maximus, who took upon himself the office of deciding. Sulpitius very properly observes, that both parties were highly culpable ; the heretics in spreading notions entirely subversive of Christianity, and their accusers in subserving only their own factious and selfish views.
In the mean time, Martin bishop of Tours, blamed Ithacius for bringing the heretics as criminals before the emperor, and entreated Maximus to abstain from the blood of the unhappy men: he said, it was abundantlysufficient.thathavingbeen judged heretics by the sentence of the bishops, they were expelled from the churches, and that it was a new and unheard evil, for a secular judge to interfere in matters purely ecclesiastical. These were Christian sentiments; and deserve to be here mentioned, as describing an honest, though unsuccessful resistance made to the first attempt, which appeared in the church, of punishing heresy with death. I scarcely know any thing more disagreeable to the spirit of a really good man, than to think of punishing capitally, on account of their irreligion, persons who (as he is constrained to believe) are walking the broad road to eternal destruction. He has no need to enter into the political arguments against persecution, which are fashionable in the mouths of infidels. He has much more weighty reasons against it, drawn from the genius of his own religion. To do what in him lies to prevent the conversion of a sinner by shortening his days—how contrary is this to the spirit of Him, who came not to destroy men's lives but to save them !
Yet there were found men at this time capable of such enormity, and it marks the degeneracy of the age. But Christ had still a church in the West, and Martin persevered with such pious zeal in opposing the hitherto unheard-of innovations, and was himself so much respected for his piety and integrity, that he prevailed at first, and the usurper promised, that he would not proceed to blood against the heretics. Two bishops, Magnus and Rufus, however, changed his resolution afterwards, and he referred the cause to Euodiusthe prefect, who, after he had found them guilty, (and they appear to have been defiled with all the impurities of the ancient Gnostics) committed them to custody, and referred them again to the emperor. Priscillian in the issue was put to death, and Priscillian four other leaders of his sect. A few more were ""he£Upllt condemned to die, or to be banished. The heresy was to death, not extinguished by this means ; for fifteen years A-Dafter, the contention was extreme between the parties; 384. Priscillian was honoured as a martyr: Christianity never received a greater scandal, though, like all the rest, underserved, from the mouth of its enemies ; and men, who feared God, and loved moderation and charity, wept and prayed in secret, despised and disregarded by the two parties, who trampled on all the rules of godliness. In the mean time the selfish and worldly passions triumphed in Spain, and though the form of orthodoxy prevailed, it was evident, that the power was reduced almost to the brink of destruction.
Let us attend to our business, and catch the face
of the Church of Christ, if we can. We see her in Ambrose, who, coming to Maximus on an embassy from the younger Valentinian, refused to hold communion with his bishops, who had been concerned in the deaths of the heretics. Maximus, enraged, ordered him to withdraw. Ambrose entered upon his journey very readily, being only grieved to find an old bishop, Hyginus, dragged into exile, though it was evident that he was very near his end. The generous bishop of Milan applied to some of the courtiers, to furnish him with conveniences *, but in vain. A number of holy men, who protested against these barbarities, were themselves aspersed with the charge of heresy, and among the rest Martin of Tours. Thus in Gaul and Spain there were three parties ; first, the Priscillianists, men void of godliness evidently, and bearing the Christian name to disgrace it with a complication of heresies ; secondly, men of formal orthodoxy, who persecuted the Priscillianists even to death, and ruined them as^ sect, at the same time that they themselves disgraced the Gospel by a life of avarice, faction, and ambition; and thirdly, men who feared God and served him in the Gospel of his Son, condemning the principles of the former by argument only, and the practices of the latter by their meek and charitable conduct. A division of men, not uncommon in the Church of Christ; but let it be remembered, that the last sort are the true branches of the mystical vine, and that they only are to be regarded as belonging to our history.
Martin was born at Ticinum in Italy, and in his youth had served in the army under Constantius and Julian; but against his will. His father, by profession a soldier, had compelled him. For he himself, when only ten years old, went to the church, and gave in his name as a catechumen f. At twelve he had a desire to lead a monastic life. But being compelled to serve in the army, he was remarkable for his * Ambrose, Ep. 27. f A candidate for baptism.
exemption from military vices, his liberality to the poor, and his reservation of nothing for himself out of the pay which he received, except what was necessary for daily food. At eighteen he was baptized, and two years afterwards left the army. Some time after, falling into the hands of robbers among the Alps, he was delivered bound to one of them to be plundered, who, leading him to a retired place, asked him, who he was. He answered, "I am a Christian." "Are not you afraid?" "I never was more at ease, because I know the mercy of the Lord to be most present in trials : I am more concerned for you, who by your course of life render yourself unfit to partake of the mercy of Christ." And entering into the argument of religion, he preached the Gospel to the robber. The man believed, attended his instructor to the road, and begged his prayers. The new convert persevered in godliness; and this relation is taken from the biographical account of Martin*.
I must be brief in following our author through other parts of the life of his hero. It was an age of childish credulity; the human mind was sinking fast into ignorance and superstition. The Christian fathers and historians relate things extremely absurd; but this was the fault of the times, not of religion. The Pagan writers, their contemporaries, are no way their superiors. Few stories told by Sulpitius are so good in their matter, and so authentic in their foundation as this of the robber. It was with difficulty that Martin was at length prevailed on to quit his monastery, and become bishop of Tours, to which office the universal voice of the people called him. He still preserved his monastic taste, and had a monastery two miles out of the city. Here he lived with eighty disciples, who followed his example ; they lived in common with extreme austerity. The celebrity of his supposed miracles had a mighty effect on the ignorant Gauls; every common action
* Sulp. vitae Martin.
of his was magnified into a prodigy; heathen temples were destroyed, and churches and monasteries arose in their stead.
Maximus courted the friendship of Martin in vain, who honestly owned, that he could not countenance a murderer and usurper. Maximus pleaded necessity, the providence of God, and that he had slain none exeept in the field. Overcome at length by importunities, the bishop supped with the usurper. A servant offered the cup to Maximus, who directed him to give it to Martin, expecting and desiring to pledge him. The bishop disappointed his hopes, and gave it to his presbyter.
Wonderful is the account which Sulpitius gives of his patience and charity. But he speaks with partial affection, as of a friend, who in his eyes was faultless. The Scripture does not colour the characters of saints so highly; and I have no ambition to imitate Sulpitius. Many evils attend this spirit of exaggeration. The excessive admiration of men takes off the mind from looking to Jesus, the true and only Mediator. Sulpitius himself professes his hope of obtaining much good through the intercession of his deceased friend. What at first were only the more unguarded effusions of friendship, became at last habits of self-righteous superstition ; and one of the worst corruptions of religion was this way gradually introduced, and in the end too firmly established.
Maximus, whatever were his motives, paid assiduous court to Martin, and together with his wife heard him discourse of divine things. She indeed seems to have admired him sincerely, and asked her husband's consent, that she might be allowed as a servant to attend upon him at supper. It was done accordingly; and our author compares her on this account to the queen of Sheba. In these transactions we may mark the progress ©f superstition.
The integrity of Martin appears very conspicuous Cent.
in opposing the tyranny of Maximus. The latter » IV
strove in vain to reconcile him to the maxims of his government in the capital punishment of the Priscillianists and endeavoured to persuade him to communicate with the bishops, who had been urgent in their condemnation. Martin refused, till, understanding that some of the king's servants were going to put certain persons to death for whom he had interceded, in order to save their lives he consented to communicate with men whose conduct he abhorred. Even of this compliance he bitterly repented, guarded against any future communion with the party of Ithacius, and lived afterwards sixteen years in retirement.
On the whole, if less had been said of his miracles, and a more distinct view had been given of his virtues, Martin of Tours would, I believe, appear among us far more estimable. That he was pious, is unquestionable; that his piety was disfigured with monastic superstition exceedingly, is no less evident; but Europe and Asia now vied with each other in the promotion of false humility, and I should be ashamed, as well as think the labour ill spent, to recite the stories at length which Sulpitius gives us.