« PreviousContinue »
Antoninus was succeeded, toward the close of the second century, by Commodus; under whom, though he himself was a most profligate prince, the Church enjoyed about twelve years of peace and rest. During this period, many of the nobility of Rome, with their whole families, embraced Christianity, and the Gospel was widely extended.
The second century was not favorable to the rise of new and powerful heresies. The great line of distinction was yet between Pagans and Christians. The question was,-Will you bow to the idols, or are you a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ? The Christians were too much oppressed to be contending with each other, and had too much of the simple faith of Jesus to give heed to seducing spirits. Opposers there were, as in the first century, to the deity and humanity of Christ, and to the doctrines of grace, who ran into a thousand unmeaning subtleties and fancies, according with the philosophy of the age ; and one Montanus pretended that he was the Paraclete or Comforter, whom the divine Saviour, at his departure, promised to send to his disciples, to lead them into all truth, and who was to perfect the Gospel by adding new precepts, requiring holiness and more abstraction from the world than Christ had demanded. He had many followers in Asia and Africa. But no new doctrine was able in this period to create any extensive and permanent interest.
Owing, however, to a co-operation of a number of powerful causes, there was in this century, a vast increase of useless rites and ceremonies. The Christians innocently desired a spread of Christianity. Instead of depending on the power of truth and holy example, under the operation of the Spirit, they attempted to please both Jews and Heathens, by an adoption of forms and ceremonies from their religions. They were called atheists, because of the simplicity and spirituality of their religion ; and, to avoid this reproach, they were induced to have a more visible and splendid worship, to multiply temples, altars, days of fasting, peculiarities of dress, and splendid ceremonies. To give importance to Christian doctrine, the symbolical manner of teaching, popular in that age, was introduced; and, to express their new and solemn engagements to Christ, military rites and phrases were brought into the peaceful kingdom of the Redeemer. Having once, from these and other causes, departed from the simplicity of Christian worship, the multiplication of rites and ceremonies ceased not for centuries.
Christ had instituted the supper as a memorial of his death ;
but, not content with this, his followers soon began to commemorate, annually, almost every remarkable event which occurred in the first establishment of Christianity. The great apni. versary festivals, which had in this century gained footing, were in commemmoration of the death and resurrection of Christ, and of the outpouring of the Spirit upon the Apostles. The first which was called Easter, or the paschal feast, because the day of Christ's death was considered as the same as that on which the Jews celebrated the passover, was soon the occasion of a disgraceful schism, which rent asunder the Christian world. The Asiatic Christians observed this festival on the fourteenth day of the first Jewish month ; and, three days after, commemorated the resurrection of Christ. The Western Christians celebrated it the night before his resurrection, that they might connect his death and resurrection in one festival. Frequent conferences were held among distinguished men in the East and the West. Toward the close of the second century, Victor, bishop of Rome, endeavored to compel the Asiatic churches to submit to the Western custom, and, failing in his attempt, broke all communion with them. Each party retained its own custom until the fourth century, when the council of Nice abolished that of the Asiatics, and reduced all the churches to uniformity.
Conduct of the Roman Emperors in the Third Century. Exten
sion of the Gospel. Decline of Piety. Increase of Useless Rites. Genuine Fruits of the Spirit. Tertullian's account of the conduct of the Christians. His Character. Ireneus.
Origen. Cyprian. Question concerning Infant Baptism. Novatians. Sabellians. Manicheans. Attacks of Heathen Philosophers. Porphyry. First great declension of Christianity. Tremendous Persecution under Dioclesian. Elevation of Constantine to the Roman Empire. Abolition of the Ancient Religion of Rome. Establishment of Christianity throughout the Empire.
The remainder of the period, referred to in the beginning of the last chapter, was, excepting in its close, similar to that which has just been described; presenting a constant succession of persecutions from Pagans, frequently relieved by Empe
In the year
rors who were friendly to the Christian cause. 203, the emperor Severus made a law, forbidding any subject of his empire to change his religion. This law was designed to retard the spread of the Gospel; and, being severely enforced, brought many, of both sexes, to the most cruel deaths. A few years after, the fires of persecution raged under Maximin. But the most dreadful persecution, of the third century, was under Decius, who ascended the imperial throne, A. D. 249. He ordered the pretors, on pain of death, to extirpate the whole body of Christians without exception; or force them, by torments, to bow to the heathen gods. This persecution raged about two years; vast multitudes were destroyed. But other emperors were extremely clement, and some, especially Philip and his son, so favorable to the Christians, as to produce a general impression that they were in heart with them. There was, therefore, a great advancement of the Church in the third century; the persecution doing but little to retard and much to purify her. The immunities of Christians were, also, considerably increased, and, under most of the emperors, they were advanced to places of power and trust.
The limits of the church were considerably extended. Origen carried the Gospel into Arabia. Pantænus into India. And some zealous missionaries planted churches at Paris, Tours and Arles in France ; also at Cologn, Treves, and Metz, in Germany, and passed into Scotland.
Almost proportionate with the extension of Christianity, was the decrease in the church of vital piety. A philosophising spirit among the higher, and a wild monkish superstition among the lower orders, fast took the place, in the third century, of the faith and humility of the first Christians. Many of the clergy became very corrupt, and excessively ambitious. In consequence of this, there was an awful defection of Christians under the persecution of Decius. Some wholly renounced Christianity, while others saved themselves either by offering sacrifice, or by burning incense before the heathen gods, or purchasing certificates from the heathen priests.
Amid the decline of piety and under the influence of the course already mentioned, useless rites and ceremonies continued to increase. The minds of men were filled with the oriental superstition concerning demons and apparitions, and with the business of exorcism and spells. Those who were not bap, tized or excommunicated, were carefully avoided as possessed of some evil spirit. And when any were baptized, the evil demon with much form and ceremony, and loud shouting,
FRUITS OF THE SPIRIT.
driven out, and the baptized were crowned and clothed with white garments, as conquerors over sin and the world. The sign of the cross was, in this early period, supposed to possess power to avert calamities, and to drive off demons, and was carried by Christians wherever they went. Fasting was in high repute. Prayers were offered three times a day, and forms began to be introduced. Sermons were long, full of trope and figure, in affectation of Grecian eloquence. And saints began to feel that there could be no piety out of the bounds of a particular church government..
But notwithstanding these degeneracies, many and precious were the fruits of the Spirit. The Church existed in an empire the most corrupt and abominable that the world had ever seen. But amid the grossest sensuality, practised without remorse, or loss of character, by men in the highest ranks, many of her fruits were holiness to the Lord. If she had not the purity of the first century, she had still a self-denial and elevation above the world, and a fortitude under suffering, and a spirit of subordination; which no where else existed; and a spirit of benevolence which made the wondering heathen exclaim, “Behold how these Christians love one another." As a proof of the strictness of her discipline, it is observed, that a clergyman, once de posed for immorality, was never restored to his order; and a communicant, once cast out for his vices, might be restored, but on a second ejection could never be admitted to the Church; though he might not be beyond the mercy of God and final salvation. Men spared no pains or expense, to obtain multiplied copies of the word of God.
The Sabbath was strictly regarded, and the sacrament was weekly administered. This ordinance, however, began to be misused-being considered essential to salvation, and administered with pomp, even to infants.
The fires of persecution raged; the most odious calumnies were invented; men, vile and contemptible, exercised the most wanton barbarities, under the ensigns of office. The Christians were amazingly numerous, and were possessed of learning, wealth, and talents; many of them were officers and soldiers in the Roman armies, and, had they been disposed, might have given the government the greatest trouble, and perhaps, overturned it completely; yet, no instance of insurrection or resistance to civil authority, was known among them, for they remembered God had said, “Vengeance is mine.” Their bitterest enemies could bring no other charge of treason, but this, that they refused to worship the gods of Rome.
Their benevolence was such as the world had not before, and has scarce since seen. They not only gave of their treasures to their own poor, but they exerted themselves to relieve distress and suffering, wherever they could find it. The Jew passed by the wounded Samaritan, and the Greek harangued about virtue, but never erected an hospital or an alms house. But the church in Rome, supported, at one time, a thousand and fifty widows. Christians felt that they did not deserve the appellation they bore, unless they spent their lives in doing good. Whole and immense estates were consecrated to public charity. Hav. ing renounced the luxuries of the world they did not need great wealth, and they viewed their poor brethren as on a level with themselves, as sinners, ransomed by the blood of the Son of God.
But their number and character is best shown by a writer of their own times:
“We pray,” says Tertullian, in his apology for the Christians, “ for the safety of the emperors to the eternal God. We, looking up to heaven with outstretched hands,because they are harmless; with naked head, because we are not ashamed; without a prompter, because we pray from the heart; constantly pray for all emperors, that they may have a long life, a secure empire, a safe palace, strong armies, a faithful senate, a well-moralized people, a quiet state of the world; whatever Cæsar would wish for himsell, in his public or private capacity Were we disposed to act the part, I will not say, of secret assassins, but of open enemies, should we want forces and numbers ? Are there not multitudes of us, in every part of the world ? It is true, we are but of yesterday, and yet we have filled all your towns, cities, islands, boroughs, councils, camps, courts, palaces, senate, forum :-We leave you only your temples. For what war should we not be ready and well prepared, even though unequal in numbers; we-who die with so much pleasure, were it not that our religion requires us rather to suffer death than inflict it? If we were to make a general secession from your dominions, you would be astonished at your solitude. We are dead to all ideas of worldly honor and dignity : nothing is more foreign to us, than political concerns. The whole world is our republic. We are a body united in one bond of religion, discipline, and hope. We meet in our assemblies for prayer. Every one pays something into the public chest, once a month, or, when he pleases, and according to his ability and inclination, for there is no compulsion. These gifts are, as it were, the deposits of piety. Hence, we relieve and bury the needy, support orphans and decrepit persons; those who have suffered shipwreck, and those, who, toi the word of God, are condemnel