Century VI, Chapter III


The State of the Church during the reign ofJustinian.

On the death of Justin, his nephew Justinian succeeded at Constantinople in the year 527. He was then forty-five years old, and reigned thirty-nine. I scarce know any prince, whose real and ostensible character were so different. If one judge by external things, he may appear one of the wisest, the most pious, and the most prosperous of men. He reunited Africa and Italy to the Roman empire; he is to this

• Fleury xxxi. 60.

f Bnice in his travels into Abyssinia, towards the latter end of the 1st vol. calls this king Phineas, who, he says, threw Christians into pits of fire, particularly a preacher Hawaryat, signify ing th<? Evangelical, with ninety of his companions. The king of Abyssinia, who fought against the Jew, he calls Caleb. His story, as extracted from Abyssinian and Arabian annals, is the same; and their correspondence, in this instance, with the Greek history gives some testimony to the authenticity of the materials ')f Bruce's Abyssinian history.

day famous tor his code of laws; he was temperate and abstemious in private life, and was incessantly employed in religious acts and ceremonies: he honoured monks and persons reputed holy, built sumptuous churches, endowed monasteries, was liberal beyond measure in the support of the externals of religion, was incessant in the encouragement of orthodoxy, at least of that which to him appeared to be so; indefatigable through the course of a long life in public affairs; seems scarce to have ever unbended himself in any recreations, spent much time in religious speculations, rooted out idolatry from its obscure corners, and brought over a number of barbarous kings and nations to the profession of christianity. What a character, if his heart had been right! His understanding and capacity indeed have been called in question; but I think unjustly. No weak man could have done half of what he did. He must have been a person of superior talents, and of very vigorous and strong faculties. But so far as appears from his conduct, he was altogether, in religion, the slave of superstition, in morality the slave of avarice. For gold he sold his whole empire to those who governed the provinces, to the collectors of tributes, and to those who are wont to frame plots against men under any pretences. He encouraged the vilest characters in their detestable and infamous calumnies, in order to partake of their gains. He did also innumerable pious actions, says Evagrius*, and such as are well pleasing to God, provided the doers perform them with such goods as are their own property, and offer their pure actions, as a sacrifice, to God. In this emperor then it may be seen more eminently what a poor thing the body of christian religion is without the spirit. Whatever benefit the church might, in some cases, derive from his administration, particularly in what relates to the extension of its pale, this is to be ascribed to the

• Ch. xxx. b. iv. Erngi-ius Scholasticus. His ecclesiastical history takes us up, just after we arc deserted by Socrates, Sozomen, and Theodorct, the tripartite historians of the same period; and in future I must make some use of him, though in historical merit far inferior to the three former.

adorable providence of God bringing good out of evil. On the other hand the evil he wrought was palpable. Dissensions and schisms, forced conventions attended with cruelties which alienated men's minds still more from godliness, the increase of superstition and formality, the miserable declension of real internal godliness, especially through the east, where his influence was most extensive, and the increase of ignorance and practical wickedness, were the undoubted consequences of Justinian's schemes.

In truth this man attempted too much: he pressed uniformity of doctrine through the world by imperial menaces and arms: he laboured to bring all nations into a nominal attachment to christianity: he prescribed what bishops and laity should believe, and was himself, in effect, the pope as well as the emperor of the Roman world; yet, wretched being! he himself seems not to have known any one thing in religion in a right manner. In external things he could not but sometimes be right; in internal religion it was hardly possible he should be so; for he was ignorant of his own heart, while his eyes and ears with insatiable curiosity were intent on all persons and objects. It will not be pertinent to the design of this .history to enter into a detail of the actions of such a prince; but the view of his character, which I think is supported by the concurrent testimony of civil and ecclesiastical historians, may teach persons of eminence, either in power, or learning, or genius, who shall give their minds to religious objects, to be in the first place more concerned for their own genuine conversion, and for personal godliness*; and then to contract and limit their plans within the humble circle that belongs to a fallible, confined, and shortlived creature like man; and steadily

• Nothing shows in a stronger light the emptiness of his mind than his boasting after he had finished the magnificent church of St Sophia, " I have excelled thee, Solomon." Yet was this vain emperor made use of by divine providence as a shield to support external Christianity at least in the world. In his time Chosroes king of Persia persecuted the christians in his dominions, with extreme cruelty, and publicly declared, that he woidd wage war not only with Justinian, but also with the God of the Christians. The military measures and the religious zeal of Justinian however checked the progress of his ferocity.

to move within that circle in the propagation and support of the gospel of Christ, and of whatever is virtuous and praiseworthy, without being seduced by romantic and dazzling schemes to attempt what is vastly above their reach: for by this method they may be the victims of their own ambition or avarice, while they think they serve God, and may fill the world with evil, while they vainly suppose they are its benefactors. But these are ideas with which the profane and the careless governor has no right to meddle: Justinian was neither the one nor the other. He was serious through life, though void of humility, faith, and charity; and for serious spirits, the caution, which his character is calculated to give, will stand an instructive lesson.

In his first year he made laws relating to bishops: a few words of them will deserve to have a place in this history. " The absence* of bishops, says he, is the reason that divine service is so negligently performed; that the affairs of the churches are not so well taken care of, and that the ecclesiastical revenues are employed in the expenses of their journeys, and of their residence in this city (he means the metropolis of Constantinople) with the clergy and domestics who accompany them. Let no bishops quit their churches to come to this city, without an order from us, whatever may happen. If we find their presence to be necessary here, we will send for them." What motives induced bishops to attend the court so much, is easy to guess; and we have here a plain description how much the eastern church was secularized, and how it gradually ripened into a fitness for desolating judgments.

Justinian says further, " when an episcopal see becomes vacant, the inhabitants of the city shall declare in favour of three persons, whose faith and manners shall be testified by witnesses, that the most worthy may be chosen." He proceeds to lay down rules to restrain the avarice of bishops; rules which had no existence in purer times, because a purer spirit prevailed.

• Fleury, b. xxx'ti. 10. .

In the year 529, a council, memorable for its evangelical spirit, was held at Orange in France: Cajsarius was its head. He had, as I observed, tasted the doc* trine of Augustine concerning grace, and was there? fore zealous for its propagation. We may reasonably * suppose the articles of this council to have been framed in opposition to the attempts in favour of semi-pelagianism made in France, as well as to give testimony to the grace of the gospel. Thirteen bishops were present, and we have a pleasing spectacle of the work of the divine Spirit flourishing in a considerable degree in France, particularly in the parts about Orange, and in the vicinity of the Rhone. " Adam's sin, says the council*, did not only hurt the body, but the soul; it descended to his posterity; the grace of God is not given to them who call upon him, but that grace is the cause that men do call upon him: the being cleansed from sin and the beginning of our faith, is not owing to ourselves, but to grace. We are not able by our own natural strength to do or think any thing which may conduce to our salvation. We believe that Abel, Noah, Abraham, and the other fathers, have not had that faith by nature that St. Paul commendeth in them, but by grace." To clear the Almighty of being the author of sin, they add however, " that some may be predestinated to evil, we not only disbelieve, but detest those who think so."

These words express in substance the sentiments of these holy men. But to enable the reader to judge for himself what they were more precisely, I shall give him two passages from the fifth and seventh canons, translated at length from the Latin original. " If any one say, that the beginning or increase of faith, and the very affection of belief is in us, not by the gift of grace, that is bv the inspiration of the holy Spirit correcting our will from infidelity to faith, from impiety to piety; but, by nature, he is proved an enemy to the doctrine of the apostles." " If any man affirm, that he

->an, by the vigour of nature, think any thing good ***which pertains to the salvation of eternal life as he ' ought, or choose, or consent to the saving, that is to Evangelical, preaching, without the illumination and M inspiration of the holy Spirit, who gives to all the sweet relish in consenting to and believing the truth, he is deceived by an heretical spirit."

I have been solicitous to preserve faithfulness to the original in this short abstract. Doubtless the sweet relish they speak of is no other than that ineffable delight in the perception and obedience of the gospel, which characterizes the godly in all ages, subjects them, though unjustly, to the charge of enthusiasm, and produces real practical christianity. In every effusion of the Spirit of God, it always appears in rich exuberance, and is as distinct from formal or even merely theoretical views of religion, as the substance is from the shadow. I look on it as a remarkable fact, that so plain a testimony to vital religion should be given in the south of France in the sixth century, when the christian world was every where so much sunk in darkness. It seems, that in this part of France at least semipelagianism had been checked: indeed, as several espousers of it were real good men, it is not to be wondered at, that by farther experience and attention they might be led to embrace in system what in their own sensations they must have known to be true, namely, that man, by nature, is lost and helpless in sin, and that grace alone can revive him. Caesarius, of Arles, was, in all probability, highly instrumental in producing this change of sentiment; for we should recollect, that Hilary of Aries, had been a semipelagian. I should rejoice to be able to gratify the spiritual reader with the account of the lives, labours, and works of these thirteen bishops of France, which were probably useful and edifying. But my records say no more; and this is one of the thousand cases in which I have to regret, how little of real church history has been written, how much of ecclesiastical perversions and abuses.

In the same year a council was held also at Vaison,* at which were present twelve bishops, of whom Caesarius was one. They decreed, according to the custom observed in Italy, that all country priests should receive into their houses young men, who might be readers in the church, that they should educate] them with a paternal regard, causing them to learn the psalms, to read the scriptures, and to be acquainted with the word of God; and in this way should provide themselves with worthy successors.f For the convenience of the people, the pastors were allowed to preach not only in the cities, but in all the country parishes.

About this time the monastic rules of Benedict were established, which afterwards were received through the western churches. They are full ©f forms, and breathe little of the spirit of godliness. The very best thing that I can find recorded of the superstitious founder, is the zeal with which he opposed idolatry. In that part of Italy, where the Samnites dwelt formerly, the worship of Apollo had been still continued, which he eradicated, and the peasants were by him instructed in christian^.

In a council held at Clermont,J »n the year 535, I see canonical methods were still used to prevent the interference of secular power in the appointment of bishops. " To correct the abuse of obtaining bishoprics by the favour of princes, it is decreed, that he who is a candidate for a bishopric shall be ordained by the election of the clergy and citizens, and the consent of the metropolitan, without making use of the protection of Persons In Power. Otherwise the candidate shall be deprived of the communion of the church, which he is desirous of governing." Hilderic, king of the Vandals in Africa, having been

• Fleury, id. 12. ^ f This is quite consonant to the ancient method of educating' men for the pastoral offices, and supplied the want of ecclesiastical seminaries. While so much attention was paid to education and the word of God, there is reason to believe that the doctrines of the gospel must have been taught with some success in France.

deposed by Gilimer, Justinian, by his renowned general Belisarius, recovered the country from the barbarians, and reunited it to the empire. This put an end to the dominion of arianism in that region. The orthodox were reinstated; two hundred and seventeen bishops held a council at Carthage; arians and donatists were forbidden to hold assemblies; and the lands which had been taken from the arians were restored by an edict of Justinian in the year 535. The face of true religion was recovered in this country; its spirit I cannot find. The best symptom was thcextension of christianity among the Moors, by the zealous care of Justinian. How far any cordial change took place among them does not appear.

In the year 536, Belisarius, the hero of this age, took Rome from the Goths, though some time elapsed after this event before the Gothic power was annihilated in Italy. But what has this our history to do with his triumphs ? His master showed much zeal for religion, though ill directed; and, what is worse, not principled with the genuine fear of God. The general scarce seemed to profess any religion at all; and the most remarkable ecclesiastical transaction in which he was concerned is sufficient to brand his name with eternal infamy. A very brief view of it shall suffice.* Theodora, the empress, gave an order to Vigilius, deacon of the Roman church, to require Belisarius to secure his election to the bishopric of Rome, and the expulsion of Silverius, at that time bishop. Vigilius was in that case to present Belisarius with two hundred pounds of gold. The venal general executed the order on the infamous conditions, and delivered Silverius into the Jiands of Vigilius, who sent him into the island of Palmaria, where he died of hungerf. It was worth while just to mention this villany, that, if any persons have been seduced into an admiration of the character of

* Fleury, b. xxxii, 57.

f So Liberatus in Breviar; but Procopius, a living witness, says, that he was murdered, at the instigation of Antonina the wife of Beusarius, 1>\ Eugenia, a woman devoted to her.

Belisarius on account of his military prowess, they may see how much splendor of false virtue may exist in a man who is altogether void of the fear of God

Justinian, though at first he seemed to take some pains to correct the consequences of tins scandalous transaction of his wife, of his general, and of the unprincipled bishop of Rome, suffered at length the whole scheme to stand. Still he persisted to meddle in religious controversies, and issued an edict for the condemnation of Origen's errors.

In the year 54 2, a council held at Orleans ordered, that if any person desired to have a parish church erected on his estate.f he should first be obliged to endow it, and to find an incumbent. Hence the origin of patronages.

In the year 555 died Vigilius, bishop of Rome, after having governed eighteen years in the see, which he had so iniquitously obtained. Selfish duplicity marked his character more eminently than that of any Roman bishop before him. But he paid dear for his intrigues and dissimulation, Justinian, who had the ambition of acting as an infallible judge of controversies himself, suffered not Vigilius to be the pope of the church. On the contrary, a little before his death, he was, though very reluctant, compelled by the emperor to consent to the decrees of a council held at Constantinople; which, by the influence of Justinian, condemned the writings called the three chapters; that is, three books, or passages of books, one of which was the work of the pious Theodoret of Cyrus. The controversy itself was idle and frivolous; yet, how many pages of church history, so called, does it fill! But I can find no vestige of piety in the whole transaction. " Therefore eternal silence be its doom."

Several western bishops, because they refused to condemn the three chapters, were banished by the order of Justinian. What advantage was it to the church, that Italy and Africa were recovered to nominal ortho

doxy, and to the Roman empire, when she was thus oppressed by her pretended protector!

Justinian, in his old age fell into the notion, that the body of Jesus Christ was incorruptible. Having once formed the sentiment, he drew up an edict, and, in his usual manner, required his subjects to embrace it Eutychius, bishop of Constantinople, had the honesty to refuse the publication of it. " This, said he, is not the doctrine of the apostles. It would follow from thence, that the incarnation was only in fancy. How could an incorruptible body have been nourished by the milk of its mother? How was it possible for it, when on the cross to be pierced by the nails, or the lance? It cannot be called incorruptible in any other sense, than as it was always unpolluted with any sinful defilement, and was not corrupted in the grave."

But the imperial mandate was stronger than the arguments of the bishop, however reasonable. He was roughly treated, was banished from his see, and he died in exile: he acted however uprightly, and seems from his integrity to have been a christian indeed. Anastasius, bishop of Antioch, resisted also with much firmness: he was a person of exemplary piety, whom Justinian in vain endeavoured to gain over to his sentiments. As he knew the emperor intended to banish him, he wrote a farewel discourse to his people. He took pains to confirm the minds of men in just ideas of the human nature of Christ, and daily recited in the church that saying of the apostle. " If any man preach to you any other gospel than that which ye have received, let him be accursed*." The example of a truly holy and upright person supporting a just cause is very prevalent. Most around him were induced to imitate. An opinion, directly subversive of the real sufferings of Christ, on which the efficacy of his atonement depends, appeared altogether unchristian. But God had provided some better thing for us, says Evagrius. While the old imperial pope was dictating the sen

• Gal. i. Evagrius, b. jv. toward the end.

tence of banishment against Anastasius and other prelates, he was seized with the stroke of death. Let not profane persons exult over him; but let those who exercise their thoughts on religion, take care to study the written word with humility, prayer., and pious reverence, warned by the apostasy of a'than, who for many years had studied divinity, and fell at last into an error, equally subversive of the dictates of common sense, as it is of christian piety, and diametrically opposite to all scripture: let us remember, however, that his follies and persecutions were the occasion of exhibiting some excellent characters even in the eastern church, who showed that they bore not the christian name without a just title to that best of all appellations.