"The Conversion of the Roman Empire" (by Charles Merivale, 1864).
The reproach which is so often made against the preachers of the Church of England in the present day ought to be qualified by some remarkable exceptions. Two of our principal living historians, Dean Milman and Mr. Merivale, are clergymen, and it would certainly be hard to show that they fall short of the highest standard ever attained by English divines. Dean Milman's History of Latin Christianity, and Mr. Merivale's History of the Romans under the Empire, are perhaps the most valuable contributions which our own generation has produced to a real acquaintance with the greatest events of history and the most interesting subjects of speculation. The volume of Boyle Lectures, which Mr. Merivale has just published, is, of course, less interesting and less important than his larger work. It would indeed have been impossible to do full justice to so vast a subject in a few discourses, each of which is of necessity limited to the ordinary length of a sermon, written under all the disadvantages which attach to that kind of composition.
Apart, however, from this, we think Mr. Merivale's readers will agree with us in the opinion that his style as a preacher is hardly equal to his style as a historian. The tempers of mind required for the two functions are by no means the same; and when Mr. Merivale preaches, his position sometimes gives his language a rhetorical turn, from which his history is almost entirely free. There is also a considerable difference in the merit of the several sermons. Some of them are admirable; others, and especially the later ones, appear to us less happy, though it must be owned that the difficulties which the pulpit presented were so great that to have overcome them altogether would have been practically impossible.
The Boyle Lectures, as every one knows, were founded in order to provide a succession of defences of religion against the attacks of its enemies, and the result has been to produce a number of arguments upon the subjects which happened to excite the greatest amount of public attention from time to time. Mr. Merivale's choice of a subject shows in itself that in one respect at least he is well fitted for the post which has been allotted to him. He obviously understands the course which religious controversy has taken, and sees what is the point at which argument can be usefully applied.
It is constantly asserted that controversy on such subjects have been worked out, that all has been said on the subject that can be said, and that the only result of further discussion will be to clothe the old topics in a dress a little different in fashion from the old one. There is a little truth in this, though not so much as many people seem to think; but there is one branch of theology to which it most assuredly does not apply. There is room for an almost indefinite extension of our critical and historical knowledge of theology, and the most important of theological questions are precisely those on which historical investigation is calculated to throw the greatest amount of light. It may be worth while to look back on the general course of controversy, in order to show how inquiries of this kind have come to be invested with that special importance which undoubtedly attaches to them at present, and to explain the probable reason of the choice made by Mr. Merivale of a subject.
Theology owes its existence almost entirely to controversy. Almost every theological proposition ever laid down gave birth to violent disputes, and in many cases to heresies or schisms. In the middle ages, no doubt, it was cultivated in what at that time was considered as a scientific manner; that is to say, an infinite number of propositions were deduced, according to the rules of logic, from first principles which were not open to discussion. As new ways of thinking and reasoning sprang up, the scholastic divinity gradually, though slowly, lost its hold, and was succeeded by the fierce practical controversy of the Reformation, which embraced all the most burning topics of theology, politics, and morals. After Protestantism had won its victory in this country a new order of controversies commenced, differing from their predecessors not so much in the method by which they were conducted as in their subject matter. The controversy on Deism and Rationalism, which has now been in full progress for at least two centuries, was, in its earlier stages, conducted on principles very similar to those on which the controversies of the Reformation were conducted. Propositions were laid down on the one side and confuted on the other. Each party considered themselves bound to put forward a complete and consistent theory which could be maintained against all opponents. With rare exceptions all theological writing was either practical or polemical. Very little was purely speculative, and hardly any even professed to be so. If it were possible to sum up the results of so great a controversy in a few words, with any sort of fairness, it might perhaps be stated in two sentences. The one party proved that the religious opinions commonly held stood in need of the support of strong positive evidence in their favour. The other party proved that our ignorance of all matters lying beyond the sphere of our own limited experience is so complete that it is impossible to say, & priori, of almost any doctrine, that it might not be true, if sufficient positive evidence could be produced to prove that it had been announced as true by any one who could show that he was divinely commissioned to make such an announcement.
The limitation “almost’ must, however, be carefully observed, for it also resulted from the controversy in question, and, indeed, it is a self-evident truth, that a belief in God must precede a belief in a revelation from God, and that this belief includes a belief in benevolence and truth as moral attributes of God; for there could be no reason for believing what God said unless it is supposed that he speaks the truth; nor can there be any reason for obeying him, in so far as such obedience is a matter of choice, unless it is supposed that his commands are for our good. To believe a lying God, or to obey a malevolent God, would be the height of folly. If God is a deceiver or an enemy, our own condition is simply hopeless, and our only course to endure as well as we can whatever he pleases to inflict upon us. The result of this is that within the limits thus laid down religion becomes, as Butler profoundly observed (though the observation did not express his own opinion), a question of fact; and this again makes it substantially a question of history, criticism, and science. Here is the world of man and nature. Here are its religions, and especially Christianity. Supposing that the whole system suggests the existence and superintendence of a wise, good, and truthful God, what is to be made of theology? What are the real facts relating to it? What is its part in the great scheme? How did it originate? Whence came its various parts? It is obvious that unless the fundamental principle of all be supposed to be assumed on reasonable grounds, these subordinate questions lose their interest. A person to whom man and nature do not suggest the existence of any God at all, or the existence of a good God would take no special interest in theology or in the history of religion. If he believed in no God, he would view the whole system as a delusion and monument of human weakness. If he believed in a bad God, a belief which in modern times and civilized countries no one has avowed in express terms, and which even the Manichees found it necessary to qualify by a supplementary good God, he would view religion and its history simply with fear and horror, and would, one might suppose, try to forget it as well as he could.
This conception of the nature of theology, and of the true method of pursuing theological controversy, was no doubt reached polemically. It arose from the affirmation on the one side and the denial on the other, that as a matter of fact there was historical evidence that God himself had miraculously communicated to men certain doctrines, and had commanded all mankind to believe them under pain of punishment. Institutions of various sizes and characters were found in different parts of the world, and some of which affirmed that they, to the exclusion of all others, were the authorized guardians and expounders of these doctrines, or of the books in which they were said to be contained. Their claims to that character could be measured only by careful historical inquiry. Of course, if that inquiry traced out the origin of particular opinions, and showed how they came to be formed by particular men, and what was the nature of their connexion with the general current of human thought upon such subjects — if it brought to light the growth of particular churches and forms of ecclesiastical government, and showed to what reasons they owed their prevalence and permanence, those very facts of themselves rebutted the notion that there was anything miraculous or superhuman in those doctrines or institutions. Whatever the divine revelation might be, and whatever might be its appointed guardian and expositor, here at all events it was not—here was the ordinary play of human reason and human passions; and if they are amply sufficient to account for that of which we read, there is no occasion to resort to the hypothesis of supernatural agency for the same purpose. If we can show how by a long succession of events, and by the ordinary play of human passions and policy on a succession of ignorant and superstitious ages, the Bishops of Rome gradually made themselves the kings of a spiritual empire, it becomes unnecessary to attribute to the Papacy any other than the common human gifts. If we can show that such a controversy, for instance, as that upon Grace and Free-will, arose at a particular time, in a particular place, and under assignable influences, and that having raged for a certain time, it at last ended in a certain result, we shall have shown that that result, at all events, is no part of the original divine revelation, but a result of the play of the human mind when directed to a particular subject.
Inquiries of this kind have two enormous advantages over the mere controversial process of stating and defending different systems. In the first place, they lead to a result. When you have with infinite trouble made a system, and even defended it successfully against all opponents —and such a felicity has occasionally rewarded the skill and industry of laborious controversialists—it is always open to gainsayers either to deny the principles on which it rests, or to affirm that it leaves untouched problems which it ought to solve. The antagonist also may set up a system of his own quite as good, as far as it goes, and altogether opposed to yours. There are, in fact, a considerable number of theological systems each of which is perfectly consistent and tenable in itself if only it were true in fact. One of the most singular things, for instance, in Dr. Newman's Apologia, is the half admission which he makes, that as a mere theory the Church of England theory excogitated by himself and his friends was more complete than any other—even than that of the Church of Rome. Other systems are entitled to the same doubtful praise. A Particular Baptist, for instance, is a wonderfully systematic and consistent person. This is the reason why theological controversies of the common kind seem to be altogether interminable, and do in fact repeat themselves constantly from generation to generation. That whole class of controversies, for instance, which involve the question of fate and free-will, or the question of the origin of evil, run inevitably into certain forms, and give at last a certain number of results, between which people who think on the subject are at liberty to choose; and this process may be repeated at pleasure for any length of time, like writing down the periods of a recurring decimal. When historically treated the result is altogether different. Historical inquiry is capable of proving to demonstration at what time and under what circumstances a given question first arose; what was its true character; what its progress, and what were the tacit assumptions of those who argued upon either side or both sides of the question. For instance, the controversy about transubstantiation involves on each side a belief in the metaphysical theory of a distinction between substance and accident. To those who do not admit this distinction the whole controversy becomes unmeaning. If there be no such thing as substance—if the word is merely idle and literally unmeaning—there can be no such thing as transubstantiation. There are great numbers of theological books which a man may read without arriving at any other result than that A says one thing and B another. But let any one read a book which treats theology historically, Dr. Hampden's Bampton Lectures, for instance, and he will find that he has learnt something real; he has found out what these questions are about; how they come to be raised, and how far and in what sense they are capable of solution at all.
There is, moreover, a second advantage in treating these questions historically and not polemically. When theology is treated polemically and controversially, each party is bent solely upon protecting his own and attacking his neighbour's position; and the necessity for this has been the great cause of that unsparing bitterness in theological controversy which has passed into a proverb. The adoption of the historical method is the best possible antidote to this. The examination of facts is a far more moderate and quiet occupation than the attack and defence of conflicting systems; and there can be no doubt that its direct and even necessary effect is to lead men to recognize the fact that every Church and every theological system has played its own part in the world, and has its own special advantages. The mere fact that such a method is adopted is in itself the strongest possible guarantee for fairness and moderation.
The practical adoption of the general principle that theology ought to be investigated historically, and that no other way of proceeding is likely to produce fully satisfactory results, of course involves the consequence that the process of arriving at the truth upon these matters, as far as it is accessible, must be long and slow—that the truth can be reached only by degrees, and that in the meantime we must acquiesce in a good deal of uncertainty upon many points on which we should like to be sure. In other words, the adoption of the historical method in theological inquiry is equivalent to the adoption of the fundamental principles of liberalism.
It is self-evident that when this mode of inquiry has been adopted, the problem to which Mr. Merivale has dedicated these sermons becomes the question of questions. The question how the Roman Empire came to be converted is in fact coextensive with the questions, Is Christianity a divine revelation? How far does that revelation extend? Where is it to be found? These are enormous questions; and, considering what an infinite quantity of books have been written on theological subjects, it is wonderful to think how little has been done towards having a really satisfactory answer to any of them. The only book in the Bible which throws any light upon the subject is the Acts of the Apostles; and it assumes on the part of those to whom it was addressed a knowledge of the times to which it refers, and of the kind of feeling then prevalent, which in the present day no one possesses. The slight notices which are afforded to us of some of the most remarkable scenes ever witnessed by men excite an immense curiosity which can never be satisfied. What would we not give to know in minute detail what passed between Paul and the men of Athens at the meeting on the Areopagus, to be able to read in extenso the speech of which the Acts obviously only record a short note, and to know specifically, and in the words of the speakers, all that passed when ‘certain philosophers of the Epicureans and of the Stoics encountered him.’ Who were the philosophers? How many Stoics? how many Epicureans? What did they say? What did he answer? What at least were the points of the controversy? All these and a thousand other questions which press upon the mind must for ever remain unanswered; but history, properly interrogated, may still tell us something at all events of the general current of thought and feeling in that age and of the nature of the great change which came over it.
The only common English books which throw much light on the subject are the two famous chapters in Gibbon’s History and Dr. Milman's History of Christianity. Dr. Milman has given less attention to the state of feeling and opinion in the heathen world at the time of the establishment of Christianity than to other subjects; and though Gibbon's inquiries are in many respects excellent, it must be confessed that the prejudice which he felt against Christianity, and the spirit in which his whole work is conceived, disqualify him for the task of appreciating the moral and spiritual influences which were the great causes of the success of Christianity. A really great book on this subject would be without exception the most important contribution which it would be possible to make to theological learning.
For the reasons already given, Mr. Merivale's sermons can be little more than hints as to the topics upon which such a book might dwell. They are, however, full of interest, and suggest a hope that their author may carry out on an adequate scale a work which no living man in this country is better qualified to execute. We remember with satisfaction that the History of the Romans under the Emperors had its precursors. Let us hope that the Boyle Lectures will be followed by an equally valuable history of primitive Christianity. In the meanwhile, every part of the present work deserves careful attention, and we will proceed in the first place to state some of its leading points, and next to make a few of the observations which they suggest.
The evidence by which the heathen world was converted to Christianity is ranged by Mr. Merivale under four heads. The first is the external evidence of miracle and prophecy; but upon this he observes that the age was totally uncritical, credulous as to matters of fact, and liable to be imposed upon by false prophecies, of which the success of the Sibylline oracles is given as a proof. Secondly, by internal evidence—the sense of spiritual wants which were satisfied by Christianity. The time when Christianity was established was a period of great searchings of heart. Many religions were competing for the allegiance of mankind, and Christianity secured that allegiance by its intrinsic merits. The principal part of the present volume is occupied with the illustration of this matter. The third cause was the impression made by the virtues, and especially by the martyrdom, of the Christians; and the fourth was the success of the creed, its recognition in the time of Constantine by the State. This, as Mr. Merivale no doubt justly observes, was the great argument to the multitude at large. ‘Men of earnest thought and men of ardent feeling had already been converted by the evidence before adduced; but the great inert mass of the thoughtless, the gross-minded, and the carnal, upon whom no legitimate arguments could make any impression, were startled, arrested, and convinced by the last overruling argument of success.’ This part of the subject lies beyond Mr. Merivale's plan. It is much to be hoped he may hereafter undertake it.
It is thus to the second head of Christian evidences that he addresses himself in the present sermons—the evidence namely of a divine origin which the intrinsic merits of Christianity presented to the heathen in the frame of mind in which they were at the time of its establishment.
The first sermon is on the text, ‘And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead some mocked, and others said, we will hear thee again of this matter. Mr. Merivale takes this text as the opportunity for describing a historical contrast which sets in a striking light the extent of the change produced by Christianity in the sentiments of the human race. On one side he puts the trial of Catiline before the Roman senate, in which Caesar expressed merely as a matter of course, and without any notion that he was saying anything surprising, the sentiment that death was not the proper punishment for the criminals, inasmuch as ‘in pain and misery death is the release from all suffering, not suffering itself; death dissolves all the ills of mortality; beyond it is no place either for pain or pleasure. On the other hand he shows a picture—perhaps a little too elaborately pictorial — of the Council of Nice—held less than four hundred years afterwards, when the whole Roman empire had its eyes fixed intently on an assembly of Christian bishops, met together for the purpose of putting into express form a creed of which the very essence and central principle was a belief in a future state, as attested by the resurrection of Christ. The world had in the interval run round the circle, ‘from a denial of the first principle of positive belief to the assertion of an entire system of revealed religion.’
The second sermon is meant to answer the question, What was the starting point from which this long journey was taken? and is prefaced by the very appropriate text, ‘Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.’ Why too superstitious? How could the utter denial of a future state be coupled with superstition? The answer given by Mr. Merivale is, that though the educated part of the pagan world did not believe in a future state, though Tartarus and Elysium had fallen to the rank of mere poetical machinery, there was nevertheless amongst them a considerable degree of belief in a God. The religions of the old world were by no means mere idle forms. ‘The conviction of the existence of Powers unseen, in whose due propitiation the safety of the State (in which was enwrapped the safety of every citizen) depended, was still deeply rooted in the heart of the Roman even of this later age. The Romans had much of the Jewish faith in an unseen superhuman power. Indeed, if Mr. Merivale is right, an educated Roman of the later age must have greatly resembled the Sadducees, as they are described by Dr. Milman in his History of the Jews, for they both united, in a manner which we find much difficulty in understanding, a firm belief in God with a disbelief in any future life. The Caesars themselves, Mr. Merivale observes, were probably deeply impressed with what may be call the religious aspect of their own position. They were, so to speak, the Popes of heathen Rome; indeed the title of Supreme Pontiff was inherited from paganism. Curious instances of the depth of this feeling are chosen, not only from the life of Augustus, in whom it might seem not unnatural, but even in the ferocious Domitian.
This, however, was by no means the only religious tenet of heathenism. The old Romans believed not only in a national God and a national religion, but many of them believed, more or less vaguely it is true, but still in such a way as to exercise considerable influence over their conduct, in some kind of law imposed by God on human conduct.
The most striking part of Mr. Merivale's volumes is that in which he describes the anticipations of the leading doctrines of Christian morality which prevailed amongst the cultivated part of heathen society. The great doctrine that ‘God hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell upon the face of the earth’ was gaining ground at and before the Christian era under a variety of influences, and especially under the influence of that prodigious mixture of all nations which resulted from the establishment of the Roman Empire over all the nations which border on the Mediterranean, from the transplantation of large numbers of the conquered tribes from place to place, and even from the vast and hideous slave trade which distributed men of all races over every part of Europe. This practical experience of the unity of the human race, of its common wants, feelings, and principles of conduct, was intensified by the philosophical theories, and by the political and legal institutions of the time. The Stoic philosophy was founded on principles accessible to the whole of mankind. It was based upon the idea of ‘a supreme existence, one and universal, eternal and immutable, the image of every virtue, the source of all good, the sole unerring judge of every approximation of human actions to the normal standard of goodness and holiness.’ The Stoic philosophy, shortly before the Christian era, appears to Mr. Merivale to have made great progress since the days of Socrates and Xenophon. It had risen from an admiration of virtue for the sake of its practical results upon society to admiration of virtue in and for itself. Great, however, and noble as was all this, it left the question of a future state entirely out of sight. The Stoic may have proposed it as a questionable hope for a few exceptions; but it never occurred to him to put it forward as the common prospect of all mankind. He raised a noble ideal of human life, but showed no means by which any considerable or even appreciable part of the race could arrive at it.
One entire sermon, and a very remarkable one it is, is employed in showing how this state of opinion and feeling was favoured by the fundamental ideas of Roman jurisprudence. The Roman tribunals by slow degrees enlarged the crude and stringent rules of the Roman law in such a manner as to form a code of general law applicable to all sorts of races and forms of government and society. A system of this kind, embracing all the affairs of life, and mixing at every turn with every kind of transaction, must, from the nature of the case, have produced the most powerful effects upon the innumerable races and classes which were forcibly bound together by the Roman rule; and no power can be imagined which would set in a more striking or more definite concrete shape the great principle that men are men under every variety of time, place, race, and creed.
In the midst of so many forces tending from different directions to impress upon the intellect and the imagination of the world the conviction of one God, one code of morality, and one common human nature as the subject of both, it was natural, and indeed inevitable, that the gloomy side of things should press upon the minds of thoughtful men. If these things were so, why was not the world better? Why did the common principles of human nature produce so little of the fruit of peace and goodwill, which it would seem they ought to bear? Why was the common code of morals so feebly observed? Why was there so much misery, confusion, and sorrow, if the whole world was under the government of one God? Mr. Merivale—perhaps a little seduced by the temptation to make a historical parallel-compares the triumphs of that day in arts and politics, with the triumphs of our own day in trade and science, and points out that the Romans were as proud of their performances as we are of ours, and with as much reason; but beneath their pride and exultation there might, he says, be traced an undercurrent of dissatisfaction and uneasiness. ‘In the midst of all this outward glory he (the Roman) was stricken at heart and terrified at he knew not what; distressed and disconsolate, he knew not why; “noises as of waters falling down sounded about him;” sad visions appeared unto him of heavy countenances.’ A time of exhortation supersedes the time of inquiry in the literature of the day. ‘We open now on an era of preaching instead of discussion, of moral discourses, of spiritual improvement drawn from events and circumstances, of the analysis of virtues and vices, of exhortations to the one, warnings against the other.’ The secret of this uneasiness is to be found ‘in their growing sense of the miseries of the world; of the trials and perturbations to which men are subjected by the insufficiency of human aims, the weakness of human resolves; by the opposition of human nature to the eternal rules of right; by a sense, however faint and dubious, of sin inherent in our mortal being, a sense of sin, and no augury of redemption. “Great is the conflict,” cries Seneca, “between the Flesh and the Spirit!” “O this accursed Flesh!” is the exclamation of Persius.’ Mr. Merivale's great knowledge of the history and literature of the Empire enables him to draw a most striking and pathetic picture of the spiritual distresses of the Roman aristocracy, at least of that part of it which cared to think about human life and its affairs, and of the way in which they sought comfort from the philosophers by no means entirely in vain. ‘It was from no vain pride that the Roman magnate furnished himself with a friend and director at his table or by his couch, with whom to converse in the intervals of business on the conversion of his soul, and from whose tuition to imbibe his soundest lessons on the conduct of life and preparation for death.’ Full justice is done in this remarkable discourse to the merits and to the sincerity of these spiritual guides, for Mr. Merivale's sympathy with learning and courage is far too generous and sincere to allow him to join in the contemptuous estimate which is so often formed of the teachings of these remarkable men. He says, ‘The disciple of the schools now glided forth, not as a searcher for transcendental verities, but as the preacher of practical philanthropy; to make men happier and better, not to make himself wiser.’ . . . . ‘One of them could beard the tyrant on his throne in bold reproof of cruelty and oppression; another could assuage the terrors of a sedition and the fury of the legions, and plead the cause of the debased and trampled slave, and rebuke the vanity of the mob of Alexandria; a third would shame the Athenians when they proposed to desecrate their city with a show of gladiators, exclaiming, “You must first overthrow your venerated statue of mercy.”’ In short, it is Mr. Merivale's opinion that, apart from and independently of the influences of Christianity, there was in progress, during the first two centuries of our era, a general movement in the direction of religion and morality, and towards the recognition of all the social duties which men owe to each other in virtue of their common nature.
The two concluding lectures are intended to show how these various wants and difficulties were satisfied by Christianity. Mr. Merivale quotes at length from the religious novel (to use the phrase of our own day) called the Clementina, the description which Clemens is supposed to give of the state of mind which led to his conversion. He began to question himself on the immortality of the soul: ‘Haunted by such thoughts as these, which came I knew not whence, I was sorely troubled in spirit. I grew pale, and wasted away: when I strove to drive them away from me, they returned again and again, with renewed violence, so that I suffered greatly. I knew not that in these very thoughts I enjoyed a friendly companion, guiding me to elevated life, nor allowing me to rest till I found it.’ He tried various philosophers, and even thought of trying to find in magic what he could not get from philosophy; but he could find peace only in the Church. Mr. Merivale does his best to show us how he and others found it there; but his success in this part of his undertaking is hardly so great as in his attempts to describe the perplexed and bewildered state of the heathen mind. This is not to be wondered at. If it is hard to understand the mental diseases of distant ages, it is still harder to understand their cure. The first place is assigned by Mr. Merivale to the difference between Christian Theism as expressed by the doctrine of the Trinity, and the pagan conceptions of God. The heathens view at most as the arranger and disposer of the world—the ‘Maker’ as distinguished from the Creator. The creed viewed him as the Creator, the ultimate cause of all things, material and spiritual. Heathenism always tended towards a belief in the doctrine of the two principles—the good and the evil God. In the Christian theology, evil is subordinate, it exists only by the divine permission. Again, the Christian believed in one God, whose providence ruled the whole world. The heathen in a multitude of idols. The pagan was by necessity a pantheist. He always fell, sooner or later, into the belief that everything—evil in all its forms, was a part of God. This was counteracted in Christianity by the doctrine of the Incarnation. ‘But for this revelation of God's personality, announced distinctly and characteristically in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the religion of the Christian would have run just the same vicious course as all human creeds and philosophies before it; no purity of morals, no holiness of ideas, no conviction of miraculous gifts, no assurance of an indwelling spirit would have saved it; for all these elements may be found in more or less force amongst the heathen systems; the salt of Christianity has been the dogmatic belief in the incarnation of the divine; in the personal manifestion of God; in Jesus Christ.’ This principle of itself made Christianity a universal religion. Grant that God incarnate once displayed himself to man, and it follows that a pattern for all ages and all places must have been given to the whole human race. This basis of fact, as attested in the Gospels, is the stronghold and very foundation of Christianity, and did in fact enable it to triumph over heathenism.
Christianity, however, was more than the announcement of a doctrine about God. It was more even than a revelation of the fact of the incarnation. It had a teaching for the future as well as for the past, and for the present as well as for the future. ‘Jesus Christ thus declared has quitted the world which he visited once for all. No; not once for all only: he will come again once more; a second advent remains for us.’ At this second advent the philosophic dream of an ‘aristocracy of souls . . . . will be finally dissolved. . . . . The systems of the ancients will sink into the obscurity they justly merit; man will breathe again, relieved from the incubus of terror they had cast upon him.’ One would have supposed that the minority who were to be saved formed something not unlike an aristocracy of souls, and that no ‘incubus of terror’ could equal that of the terror of eternal damnation. But when was this to be? Mr. Merivale admits, though not so fully or with such a degree of emphasis as the importance of the admission requires, that ‘in the first flush of Christian faith, the second coming was daily, nay, hourly expected.’ He also asserts that ‘in one sense’ this second coming actually took place at the taking of Jerusalem, when ‘Christianity was shifted from its Jewish foundations, and the Gentiles were admitted to the promises of God. The lapse of time without the occurence of the expected event brought other matters to remembrance. ‘From day to day this saying assumed a deeper significance: “I will not leave you comfortless; I will send you the Holy Ghost to comfort you.”’ This led to the concluding sentences of the Creed, which assert the existence of the third person of the Trinity, of ‘the Church as of Divine appointment with all the graces and privileges which are divinely vouchsafed to it, as the pillar and ground of truth, as the eternal witness to one faith, as having the spirit of knowledge, and the promise that Jesus Christ will be ever with it. Here,’ Mr. Merivale rather singularly adds, ‘was a substitute for the visible presence of Christ upon earth. Here was an answer to the questions, When will he appear? and how shall his Church continue without him? His visible presence is not required. His appearance may be indefinitely delayed.’ It is a very bold thing to say that the state of the Christian Church has always been, and is now, such as to be a satisfactory substitute for the presence of Christ upon earth. Such is the great outline of the Christian doctrine as delivered at the Council of Nice. It introduces the concluding lecture, in which Mr. Merivale describes the manner in which the example of the Christians completed the conversion of the Empire. He is here upon easy and familiar ground. As to the great moral revolution wrought by Christianity, there can be no room for question. The Christian type of character was beyond all doubt entirely different from that which prevailed in the heathen world—different in its virtues, different, it must be added, in its weaknesses. There is as little doubt that it was not only different, but superior, and that that superiority was one at least of the great causes of the practical success which, as Mr. Merivale justly observes, was the conclusive argument with the immense majority which cared comparatively little for religion, and was willing to give its allegiance to any powerful body of men which could claim it on plausible grounds.
This is a sketch of the substance of these remarkable sermons. They suggest a great variety of observations, some of which indeed would require volumes for their full development. We will therefore confine ourselves to a few of the most prominent and most important of their number. In the first place it is important to observe that Mr. Merivale's book is addressed to the proof of one point, and one point only. It contains arguments to show that Christianity (taking the word in a general sense, and not intending to define it) is eminently suitable to human nature in general, and in particular to that state of feeling which existed at the time when it was first established. No doubt this is true, and no doubt also it is important, but it is a two-edged sword. On the one hand a religion divinely revealed ought to be suited to human nature and to the circumstances of the age in which it was first propagated; but on the other such a religion, even if it were not divinely revealed, would have an enormous advantage on its side in the general struggle for existence which goes on between schools of thought as well as between species. The truth is, that by showing the adaptation of Christianity to the wants of human nature, men rather explain its success than establish its truth—at least the argument in favour of its truth is exceedingly incomplete, for it shows only that it has one mark of truth, and that a mark which would of itself and independently tend to promote its success.
When, however, we try to make our language a little more precise, and ask specifically what we mean when we talk of the success of Christianity and its adaptation to human nature, a new and most difficult series of questions at once arises. What is it that has succeeded? and what has been the nature and extent of its success? Mr. Merivale seems hardly to have appreciated the importance of these questions even to the most general view of the subject which he had taken in hand. By Christianity he apparently means the doctrines expressed in the Nicene Creed, and in general the principles and practices of the Christian Church as it was at the time of the Council of Nice; and by its success he means its adoption as the official creed of the Roman Empire. He means, in short, that outward and visible triumph over paganism, which, as he says, no doubt with perfect truth, was after all the really efficient cause of the conversion, such as it was, of that vast majority whose interest in religion was languid and occasional.
This view of the matter opens two previous questions, the importance of which towards a full solution of all the questions connected with Christianity it is impossible to overrate. What triumphed was the doctrine of the body which drew up the Nicene Creed. But how far can this be identified with the revelation made by Christ himself? In other words, what alterations had taken place in the Christian Church during the first three centuries of its existence? Till this question is answered we cannot know how far that which triumphed is entitled to be called Christianity. In order to answer this question fully, it would be necessary in the first place to have a perfectly clear notion of the nature of Christianity at its first establishment, to know with precise, minute accuracy what it was that Jesus Christ told his disciples, what were the very words that he said, and under what circumstances they were spoken. This of course no human being either does or ever will know. There is, however, another great gap in our knowledge which will never be filled up. Even if we were perfectly well acquainted with the origin of Christianity, if absolutely no doubt at all existed as to the nature and extent of the teaching of Christ himself, still we know so little that we can hardly be said to know anything at all of the history of the first century and a half of the Christian Church. How, for instance, was the canon of Scriptures framed? who were the authors of the Canonical Books? who impressed upon them the character of canonicity, and what did they mean by it? what was the original form of Church government? how, when, where, and by whom was it instituted? what was the origin of the great leading dogmas? how and by whom were they first put into shape? who, for instance, was the author of the Apostles' Creed? what was the discipline of the Church? who regulated it, and how far was it uniform ?—all these are questions to which we are altogether unable to give any satisfactory answer. To some degree some of them may be answered, probable conjectures may be made as to others; but an obscurity hangs over the origin of the Christian Church denser than that which conceals the sources of the Nile; and it is an obscurity which no zeal, no patience, and no good fortune can ever dispel. All that we can say with certainty is that by degrees a clerical or spiritual society came before the world full of life and vigour, furiously in earnest in the midst of a languid and melancholy generation, which by degrees it subjugated and ruled in a manner on the whole beneficial, but by no means absolutely or entirely good. Looking further we find that from the very first origin of Christianity controversies of the bitterest kind prevailed as to what was the true doctrine. The Apostles themselves, even while Christ was on earth, were by no means perfect. There were contests amongst them which should be the greater. They never, as it would seem, understood the spiritual character of their Master's religion even whilst he himself was explaining it to them. When left to themselves they were not more unanimous. Peter strove with Paul, Paul quarrelled with Barnabas. James seems to have been by no means altogether satisfied with Paul. Paul blames the Corinthians both for their morals and for their intestine divisions. ‘Every one of you saith I am of Paul, and I of Apollos, and I of Christ.’ The book of Revelation, whenever it was written, and whoever was its author, shows that in the very first age there were divisions and heresies everywhere. Ephesus had its Nicolaitans; in Smyrna was to be found ‘the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.’ Pergamus ‘has them who hold the doctrine of Balaam. Thyatira suffers ‘that woman Jezebel which calleth herself a prophetess to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication and to eat things sacrificed unto idols.’ Indeed in this Church those ‘which have not known the depths of Satan’ seem to have been a minority. Sardis has ‘a name that thou livest and art dead, though there are “a few names’ there ‘which have not defiled their garments. Philadelphia, though praised on the whole, is warned, or perhaps encouraged, against those ‘which say they are Jews and are not. The Church of the Laodiceans is ‘neither hot nor cold.’ It is ‘wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked. Indeed the whole of ecclesiastical history, from the very commencement to the present time, is one continued scene of discord. In the face of such a state of things as this it is obviously impossible to doubt that the body which actually did triumph by degrees over the Roman Empire, and which in the course of its own history went through phases not very unlike those of the great political system over which it triumphed, had in itself an abundant measure of human infirmity of every kind. There is no sort of reason to believe either that its theology was the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, or that its morality was absolutely good. That the Christian Church was on the whole a far higher and nobler thing than the Roman Empire; that it was the teacher and exponent of truths of vital importance to mankind, cannot be doubted. That those truths were imperfectly conceived and expressed, and that they were dashed with a very sensible mixture of superstition, and especially with that ascetic conception of morals which, when carried out to all its consequences ends in Manichaeism, is at least equally true, and is most important to be borne in mind and strongly insisted on. The conversion of the Roman Empire was no doubt a great work. Perhaps when rightly considered it will appear to have been the greatest work ever done in this world; but it is a mistake to represent it as a conversion from total darkness to absolute light. It was no such thing. It was a change from a bad state to a better; but to one which itself required further improving. It must be added that the change involved some loss. Let any one read Mr. Merivale's own history and Gibbon's Decline and Fall, and then say honestly whether every gain of the Church was again to mankind at large; whether the clergy and the monks were always and in all respects better men and better citizens than the Roman statesmen and lawyers; whether the fury of theological controversy and the spread of monkery and asceticism made men really better and wiser than they were before; whether, in a word, the centuries which intervened between the reign of Constantine and the rise of modern Europe were the best and brightest part of human history. In our own judgment it is impossible for any one honestly to study and ponder over that history without gaining a deep conviction that the golden treasure of Christianity was given to us in earthen vessels; that unmixed truth and perfect goodness never have prevailed amongst men; and that from the day of the Ascension to this present moment there has not existed anywhere upon earth any party or body of men whatever which could rightfully claim our absolute and unreserved sympathy upon every important subject, or which could altogether escape grave censure from really impartial judges.
There is, however, another question which Mr. Merivale might have noticed besides the question how far the Church represented Christianity in the fourth century. Not only must we know what we mean by Christianity, but we must know in what sense it triumphed, before we can celebrate unreservedly the triumph of Christianity. It would thus be essential, in order to measure the great event in question, to know what was the value and the extent of the conversion which then took place. In so far as it was a spiritual change, in so far as men learnt to know and love God and to love and recognize their duties to their fellow-men, the change in question was undoubtedly deserving of all the sympathy which can be bestowed upon it—but was this the general result? The conversion of the Roman Empire is only another name for the legal establishment of Christianity in the Empire. Mr. Merivale truly and impressively points out that the argument by which the majority, ‘the multitude,’ were converted was the argument of success. Christianity had become the established system: it had subverted paganism: the Emperor was a Christian. The Christian clergy were recognized and favoured by the State. All these were no doubt the weightiest kind of reasons with that vast crowd who cared very little for the old paganism, and who probably in their hearts had hardly any reason beyond the force of habit for preferring a languid, indifferent submission to the ceremonies of the Church to an equally languid and indifferent assent to the ceremonies of the Temple.
Now as respects the adherence -- the formal official adherence of this large class to the Christian Church— what is to be said? There is always danger of underrating the importance of such a state of things. There is a wonderful power in forms even if they are not more. The fact that one nation is professedly Protestant and another professedly Roman Catholic is immensely important, although the act by which the change is made may be the act of a few, and may appear at the time to exercise little or no moral influence over the many. On the other hand, the nature of its importance is liable to be misunderstood. The passive or sluggish majority have something to teach as well as to learn. Though nominally converts they are also teachers. They exercise an immense influence over those who have converted them; and we ought never to lose sight of the great truth that when the Roman Empire was converted by the Christian Church, the Christian Church in its turn might be said to be converted by the Roman Empire. In the earliest ages there was in the Church a tendency to superstition. After the conversion of the Empire the religion of a great part of the converts became a sort of baptized Paganism, which rapidly developed itself into that corrupt state of worship which still continues over so large a part of the Christian world.
This observation is so old as to be almost trivial, though it is certainly true; but there is another to which less attention has been paid, but which is perhaps of greater importance. Not only did the world in some sense convert the Church, but the world had something to teach the Church, and that something was of the utmost importance. It was for many centuries most imperfectly taught in every part of the world, and is even at the present day far from being sufficiently well learned. What the world had to teach was the beauty and value of this present life, and of its ordinary duties and pursuits for their own sake, and without reference to the world to come. Of the Gospels, and especially of the Sermon on the Mount, it may truly be said that they assume the existence of an existing state of society, and of a current morality which have their own independent basis; but throughout the whole course of Church history the clergy have always laboured under the temptation of setting up a modified Manichaeism; of viewing life as a necessary or permitted evil, bad and wicked in its principle and essence, and this temptation has continually led them in practice to set up a system of morals, capable of being summed up in the conclusion that though, unhappily, the world cannot be converted into one great monastery, yet the monastic is higher and better than the social ideal, and that the current morality of the mass of mankind ought to be so formed and regulated as to concede that fact. This conclusion extends also to the operations of the mind, and alleges in various ways so subtle that it is not always easy to trace or detect them, that there is an indefinable taint over the operations not only of the senses and feelings, but also of the reason, which ought always to bring men to the feet of the priesthood to be purified and forgiven for the crime of being human beings.
If this view of matters were fully carried out and thoroughly adopted, it would either depopulate the world or drive it mad. The reason why it did not prevail, except to a small and endurable degree, was that latent scepticism which is the standing grievance of the clergy. How many thousand sermons are preached every year amongst all denominations of Christians, which are variations of some such theme as this, ‘O my brethren, if you really believed what you profess to believe, would you act as you do? Would you care so much for this little life, with its small affairs, and so little for the eternal world to which you are on your way?’ &c. If these questions were fairly answered, the reply would be, ‘To say the truth, I am very far from entirely believing what I profess to believe, for this plain reason, that I believe on the balance, and with considerable doubts whether it is all true; but as I am not in a position to contradict you, and as I do not deny that there is some truth in what you say, though I cannot quite tell you how much, I will sit still, and leaving you to descant on my inconsistency, I will continue to take my own course.’ This mute inarticulate protest on behalf of human life and the common maxims of conduct, against the furious zeal of the early Church in favour of all sorts of rigour, was of infinite use not only to mankind, but to Christianity. By degrees it cooled the clergy down to that comparatively reasonable state in which they may at present be seen in many parts of Christendom; and it is no doubt destined at last to work out a real solution of the great practical problem of religion—What amount of influence will a reasonable man permit any system of religious belief whatever to exercise over his conduct? This question is still far enough from being solved. It may be a question whether even yet it is fully understood in all its bearings. Till it is understood at least, even if it is not solved, the questions relating to the true nature and value of the conversion of the Roman Empire will not be capable of being fairly stated, to say nothing of their being answered.
At all events no book on the subject can be even proximately fair or complete which does not give both sides of the question—which does not do full justice as well to the lay as to the clerical view of life, and admit that the whole change which took place in human feeling—the change of the Christian world in the heathen direction, as well as the change of the heathen world in the Christian direction—is to be fairly estimated according to its merits, instead of indiscriminate praise being allotted to the one, and indiscriminate blame to the other. If the most eminent of the fathers— Augustine, for instance—had had everything his own way, and had succeeded in prevailing on mankind in general to adopt his views unrestrictedly, and make them the absolute rule of their whole conduct and frame of mind, what a world it would have been Suppose every one had thoroughly embraced in his very heart of hearts the doctrines of original sin and eternal damnation in their complete and logical form, and had really believed that God had so arranged matters that the whole heathen world was eternally damned, and that all Christians would be damned also who did not live upon the most rigorous principles, what a scene of horror the whole of human society would have presented! Even if we suppose, and experience contradicts such a supposition, that an overwhelming sense of terror had repressed all crime, the world would have led an agonizing, anxious, slavish sort of life; nor is it easy to see how the power of the intellect would ever have been fully and freely exerted. There is in all art, all literature, even in almost every kind of science, a certain belief and delight in the present life and its objects, which, whether latent or not, is practically essential to artistic, literary, or scientific eminence.
Christianity no doubt contains other principles of a far higher and more liberal kind than those which form its penal side. The belief in a good God, loving the world, obscured and almost stifled as it has often been by theological systems, is the root of the Christian faith, and the true source of the nobleness to which it has given birth; but it is not the less true that it is by virtue of a happy inconsistency, and by preaching doctrines opposed to other parts of their own creed, and to some extent borrowed from the pagan world which it converted, that the clergy befriended and developed the intellect.
Passing from these preliminary points, upon which it was perhaps not to be expected that Mr. Merivale should enter in the pulpit, let us examine a little the account which he gives of the causes of the conversion of the Empire. The first, and by far the best and most interesting part of the book, is that in which he describes the state of mind of the heathen world at the time of the foundation of Christianity. The common run of writers upon this subject have generally taken pleasure in dwelling upon the extreme wickedness of mankind at that period, and have seemed to feel that the benefits conferred by Christianity will be heightened by everything which tends to show how deep was the darkness which it illuminated. There is in this something a little ungenerous, and Mr. Merivale has at all events avoided that fault. He does full justice to the moral greatness of the Roman Empire, and his profound knowledge of the subject invests what he says with the highest authority.
The great general causes which must have acted on the Roman mind may no doubt still be traced, and as soon as they are pointed out it appears that their influence must have been immense. The unity of the Roman rule, the universal morality of the Roman law, thrown into the most definite shape by the labour of many generations of jurists, and founded on the Stoic philosophy, and the growing sense which would naturally accompany this of the frivolity, falsehood, and general meanness of all the existing forms of worship, were no doubt matters which could not fail to influence every mind in the empire, and which would naturally predispose them to welcome the advent of a creed which was founded on the notion of human unity, which contained all that was noble in the Stoic philosophy, and which had a moral code of its own as efficient and as practical as the Roman law, though infinitely more comprehensive in its scope and more severe in its sanctions. As the external organization of the empire first shook, and then by degrees fell and melted away, the great moral empire, the Civitas Dei, would naturally stand out as the great refuge of mankind against anarchy of every description. All this is quite true, and is described by Mr. Merivale with great power; nor can it be doubted that he is equally well founded in his suggestion that the specific individual character of Christianity, its foundation on historical fact and upon the life of a single person, were immensely influential in producing its success. Nothing but such a theology could do for the world at large what the Stoic philosophy had done very imperfectly for a select body of studious persons.
It may be doubted, perhaps, whether Mr. Merivale has not to some extent permitted his imagination to realize the state of feeling which he describes more fully than, from the nature of the case, is possible in the present day, and whether he has not fallen into the very natural error of assigning too much influence to the spiritual distresses of the heathen world. He gives an elaborate account of the agony of mind which the patricians underwent in the midst of their luxury. Quoting the verse, ‘Oh, wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?’ he goes on, ‘To many a lord of a patrician palace this cry of agony would sound as the echo from his own walls—the echo to the sighs and adjurations he had himself uttered in solitude, or confided to the ears of his own private adviser, his domestic philosopher. Further on he observes, “Amid the impending wreck of civil society creeps in a distrust of man and man's assistance; an instinctive cry of “Save thyself,” heard in the recesses of the conscience, drives men to look to their personal interests in regard to spiritual things. And these are only specimens of a tone which runs through a great part of the volume.
It would be very rash to deny that this may have been so, but it seems to us at all events a little bold to affirm that it actually was so. Mr. Merivale's own authorities appear to us to point to the conclusion that Stoicism was, with a particular class and under certain circumstances, a substitute for Christianity rather than an introduction to it. A certain similarity may perhaps be discovered between the moral tone of writers of the later ages of heathenism and that of the Epistles and Gospels; but this partial similarity is surely a long way from proving that the heathen world in general, or that the philosophical part of it in particular, were under impressions of sin which were all capable of being removed by Christianity. Whether or not Seneca knew of Christianity is a curious question, to which Mr. Merivale refers in his History of the Roman's under the Empire; but what reason is there to think that if he had known of it he would have become a Christian? He had apparently worked out a theory of life its duties and its prospects—satisfactory to himself, without the aid of Christianity; and the same must be said of other heathens who lived both before and after him. Many grounds may be suggested which would and no doubt did lead the Pagan world to adopt Christianity. Their own reflections and experience would teach them, as similar means teach people in the present day, to see the unsatisfactory nature of a great part both of the activities and of the wants of human life; but how by such means they should be led to that specific feeling which is described as a sense of sin, a fear of divine anger, and punishment for their way of living, it is much more difficult to see.
Whether Mr. Merivale has or has not pressed his evidence rather too hard, and been a little too eager to get a theological application out of matters which do not really afford much scope for it, it is impossible to read his sermons without feeling that without intending to do so they do suggest at every turn the very question which Gibbon's famous chapters on the rise of Christianity were meant to raise by way of innuendo. In each case the impression made is something of this kind:—Here we have a natural explanation of the success of Christianity. Why, therefore, should we resort to the supposition that that success was produced by any miraculous interposition? The greatest fault that can fairly be found with Gibbon for the way in which he has conducted his argument is, that instead of saying what he meant in plain words, he conveyed his meaning by a series of innuendos which often fell into the form of sneers unworthy of a man of his learning and genius.
No one will for a moment doubt the perfect sincerity of Mr. Merivale, or the entire absence from his mind of any kind of intention to be heterodox under the mask of orthodoxy. His case is a very simple one, and may be stated thus:—If God revealed a religion to man, the religion so revealed might be expected to be adapted to human nature in general, and in particular to the circumstances of the age in which it was revealed. The Christian religion has these characteristics. The Christian religion, therefore, has one mark which we might expect to find in a religion revealed by God to man. This is perfectly true as far as it goes; but it is also perfectly true that the argument may be put the other way. If men invented a religion, and, either from enthusiasm or honest mistake, ascribed to it a divine origin, and if that religion succeeded, it would in all probability be suited to the wants of human nature in general, and in particular to those of the age in which it was established. This being the case with Christianity, Christianity has some of the qualities which we might expect to find in a religion of human origin, to which a divine origin had by some means been ascribed. This again is perfectly true; and the inference is that the facts proved by Mr. Merivale are altogether ambiguous, and make neither for nor against the doctrine of the divine and supernatural origin of Christianity. Does it follow that they are valueless? Surely not. The great object of any theology, worthy of the name, is the investigation of truth, and not the establishment of any particular foregone conclusion. Let us at all events have the facts, whatever they are, and whatever they establish. Viewed in this light, Mr. Merivale's Sermons are very valuable. As far as they go, they are a contribution to the great problem which includes in itself all minor controversies of a theological kind—the question what, as a matter of fact, Christianity is, and how, in fact, it did obtain the suffrages of so great a part of the world in its favour. Mr. Merivale's inquiries add to what was already well known on the subject this item of knowledge—which probably had not been brought out fore with equal clearness and fullness—namely, that there was at the time when Christianity was established a strong current of moral sentiment running independently in the same general direction, as Christian morality; and this fact is one of great interest. It shows for one thing how readily heathen sentiment would coalesce with and colour Christian teaching, moral or theoretical. Moral sympathy spreads with wonderful quickness, and overleaps the boundaries of all sorts of creeds. We might be sure, even in the absence of all express evidence upon the point, that the general moral tone of the sounder part of the Roman community would exercise a deep influence over the Christians, and that as the Christian creed became more and more definite it would translate pagan sentiment into a theological form. Mr. Merivale truly says that the Christian view of life, as understood by the early Church, is a gloomy one. He adds, not we think with equal truth, that it is less gloomy than the heathen view. A horrible certainty is hardly entitled to be called more cheerful than a blank uncertainty. The most that can be said in favour of the early Christian view of the subject is that it claimed to know the worst; but considering that that worst was also the worst possible—considering that it consigned to everlasting tortures almost all the past generations of mankind, all the then present generation, with inconsiderable exceptions, and the great majority of all generations to come—it is difficult to see how it can have been any particular consolation or deliverance to the pagans if they weighed the matter calmly. We know as a fact that by degrees it did subdue and overcome them; but may we not reasonably believe that this belief itself, and much of the character which Christianity by degrees assumed, was the result of this conflict, and neither a part nor a characteristic of the original creed? May we not believe that in order to crush and cow the heathen world a greater prominence was insensibly given to the doctrine of hell than it possessed in the apostolic times, that it was a sort of retort to the temporal persecutions exercised against the Christians – ‘Our fires are hotter than yours, and more lasting?’ Is it not, also, the true inference from Mr. Merivale's sermons that the Church of the third and fourth centuries, its morality, its institutions, its cast of mind, were to a great extent modified by and appropriated from the nobler features of its great antagonist the Roman Empire?
The similarity extends not only to the energy, the fortitude, and the sense of duty, but also to the cast of intellect of the two bodies. There was something coarse and uncritical in the Roman intellect, with all its great practical qualities, and in the theology of the Church there are characteristics of a somewhat similar kind. Mr. Merivale says that the age was thoroughly uncritical, very credulous as to all marvellous stories, and easily imposed upon by forgeries, which were by no means uncommon. These are observations which it is impossible to forget when we remember how large a part of our received theology depends upon the credit of the early Christian writers; and the reflection, though it may appear alarming, is, when duly considered, by no means without its satisfactory side. Let us consider a little what is the nature and extent of this observation.
In the first place, what does Mr. Merivale mean by the ‘uncritical’ spirit of the times? He means, of course, something wider than the mere inaptitude of the age for literary criticism. During the first three centuries of the Christian era physical science, in our sense of the word, did not exist. It requires a great effort of the imagination to understand even for a moment what such a state of things implies. Julius Caesar, or any one else whom we choose to take as the most highly educated man of that age, had no knowledge at all of the shape of the earth, or of its relations to other heavenly bodies. He was acquainted with geometry, and knew enough of astronomy to make a tolerably correct calendar; but of the general constitution of physical nature, and especially of its essential regularity under the appearance of variety, no Roman knew anything at all. No Roman knew how bodies fall, or even that they do fall according to a fixed rule. They knew so little of hydraulics that they appear to have been ignorant of the fact that water finds its own level, and in the whole of Rome there was no such thing as a common pump. The Romans, again, had hardly anything amongst them that could be called history. They were more or less acquainted with the history of Greece and with that of Rome for several centuries; but it is only necessary to read Livy to see how ignorant and how unphilosophical they were—how thoroughly they were unable to distinguish between facts and fables. It is indeed perfectly plain that there was amongst them no measure of historical probability. They did not know what kind of things do and what do not happen. That sort of knowledge can be obtained only by experience and comparison—no amount of native ability can either give it or act as a substitute for it. Their experience was of a very scanty kind. It was confined almost entirely to the practical conduct of their own affairs—war and politics; and their only external instructor, the only subject in which they had made great progress, was art. This kind of training was no doubt calculated to produce, as we know that it did in fact produce, extraordinary men and institutions of marvellous power. The circle of human knowledge was at that time so narrow that it was possible for a single person to grasp a large proportion of it, and such experience as was to be had was genuine, original, and fresh. The consequence was, that the intellectual, the moral, and above all the imaginative, faculties of particular persons were stimulated perhaps to a higher degree than has ever been the case in any other part of the world; and this is the reason why ancient history and literature have, and will always retain, an undying charm for every one who can appreciate human greatness. This state of things, however, was far from being as favourable to the study of truth as it was to the development of individual character. A Roman was apt to believe on slight grounds in anything which he considered it desirable or edifying to believe. The difference between a theory which ought to be, and a fact which was true, was to him very slight. The modern doctrine that religion is a question of fact was most imperfectly understood. Hence religious questions were not studied as we should study them now-a-days. Far less stress was laid upon questions of fact, and far more upon questions of moral fitness.
It will be sufficient to mention two well-known instances of this. In his controversy with Origen, Celsus observes that Jesus probably learned magic when he was carried into Egypt, to which Origen replies, not by denying the existence of magic, nor by saying that if there are false miracles which the devils are authors of, there must be true miracles which proceed from God; and the infallible means of discovering them is the manners of those who perform them, i.e., their doctrine and the effects of it. The argument may be sound, though the introductory part of it (that if the Devil works miracles, God must also) is, to say the least of it, singular; but the tone of mind which it implies is radically different from that of our own age. Another case is the well-known instance of St. Paul. In the great chapter on the resurrection of Christ, he speaks of it, not as an extraordinary fact which the weight of evidence compelled him to believe, but as something which he believed because it was, so to speak, fit and right that it should happen. He refers, no doubt, to the external evidence -- Cephas, the Twelve, the five hundred brethren, James, all the Apostles, ‘and last of all he was seen of me also, with a summary rapidity which, whilst it shows how strong he felt that evident' to be, also shows that he viewed the matter not entirely, or even principally, as a matter of fact. The moral impossibility that Christ should not have risen influences him far more than the mere weight of evidence. ‘If Christ be not raised your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most miserable.’ The preeminence in his mind of what may be called the spiritual necessity of the resurrection, over the judicial proof of it, is illustrated by the fact that he puts his own vision on the road to on a level with the testimony of Peter and those who had actually seen the empty tomb, and been present at the ascension, yet the vision which he witnessed had no necessary relation at all to what we understand by the resurrection. It went at most to prove a future state.
Each of these examples tends to prove two conclusions, both of which are of the utmost importance, and both of which might be supported by any required amount of evidence. They show, on the one hand, how earnestly the early Christians believed in the facts stated in the Gospels, and how keenly alive they were to the truth that their religion owed much of its success and stability to the circumstance that it was founded on fact, and not, as was the case with heathens, on a mass of fables. They show, on the other hand, that the early Christians were not alive to the immense importance of minute accuracy in weighing evidence, and that they were not accustomed to subject statements as to matters of fact to those tests of truth with which the experience of ages has supplied us.
The fair inference from these two conclusions is, on the one hand, that the Christian religion was founded on facts of a most extraordinary kind; and on the other that we neither do nor ever shall know fully and precisely what those facts were, or what the original primitive Christian religion was. Gibbon, in his famous chapter on the growth of Christianity, observes, ‘The theologian may indulge in the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she contracted in a long residence upon earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings. Upon this celebrated passage Dean Milman most justly observes, “Divest this whole passage of the latent sarcasm betrayed by the subsequent tone of the whole disquisition, and it might commence a Christian history, written in the most Christian spirit of candour. Like most of its author's remarks, this is perfectly true, and entirely just– Gibbon was very wrong in sneering at Christianity, as no doubt he sometimes did, but he was right in asserting that the history of Christianity is from the very first tinged with human infirmity, enough to prevent us from giving an absolutely unhesitating assent to any statement of Christian doctrine merely because it is ancient and venerable. In examining such statements, we have always to make allowance for the character of the reporter, and for the medium through which the state of feeling prevalent in his age and country compelled him to look at things.
This conclusion is one to which every line of thought and inquiry upon theological subjects appears to converge. It is the result of ecclesiastical history, of biblical criticism, of a priori reasoning from analogy, or from any other legitimate source, and above all it is the result of practical experience. An honest search for an infallible authority will lead every one who courageously follows it up, to this conclusion. There is only one kind of inquirer who is sure to find an infallible guide—the inquirer who sets out with the assumption that there must be one somewhere, and with the determination to accept as such the institution or the book which looks least unlike what he has determined to have.
To those who do not feel such a want, the pain which is caused by the absence of any mode of supplying it appears very singular. Suppose, for the sake of illustration, that it was quite certain that the view which the primitive Christians entertained of human and divine affairs was absolutely true. Suppose there was no possibility of doubting that in the great controversy between the Church and the Empire, the Church was so completely in the right, that the only path open to true believers in the present day was to throw themselves thoroughly into the spirit of the early Church, to love what it loved, to hate what it hated, to think of God and man as it thought, without hesitation or qualification, without permitting even the possibility of a doubt to arise in the mind. What would be the result? We should have to abjure all or at least many of the virtues of which the history of modern Europe in general, and in particular that of our own country, supplies the brightest examples. We should have to look coldly upon courage and patriotism. Passive submission to the vilest oppression, absolute non-resistance to any violence which could claim the name of government and law, would have to be the great objects of our admiration. We should have to disown the founders of European, and especially those of English liberty. We should have to admit that Magna Charta, and the Reformation, and the long list of victories over arbitrary power which signalized the latter half of the seventeenth century, were bought by sin. We should have to feel that though by an inexplicable anomaly we might perhaps be justified in fighting the French if they invaded us, we should nevertheless be bound in conscience to submit patiently to all extremities of tyranny which our own rulers might choose to inflict. We should have to view such a transaction as the foundation of the Indian Empire, for instance, as a proceeding too violent, too noisy, too worldly altogether for our religion. In short, we should have to think of the greatest events in the past history of our country as so many splendid sins.
This, however, is by no means the greatest sacrifice that it would be necessary to make for the pleasure of obtaining certainty. It would be necessary to take to heart the tremendous doctrine of eternal damnation in all its length and breadth, to believe that hundreds of millions of Chinese and Indians were sent into the world only to qualify themselves for hell, and, indeed, that for the mass of mankind, this life was only the porch to hideous, never-ending, hopeless torture. It ought never to be forgotten, nor can it be repeated too often, that a belief in this doctrine is the price of dogmatic certainty. Determine that you will neither doubt nor inquire, and that is the doctrine which you will have to believe. Those who talk of the agony of doubt, should consider how they would like to exchange that agony for such a certainty as this.
The admission of the plain truth is in this, as in all other cases, the best and easiest course. Grasp the truth that Christianity is rather a religion than a theology, that its unity consists in a temper of mind which may be, and in point of fact is and always has been, allied with different and even conflicting theological opinions, and there is no difficulty in admitting that the early Christians were perfect neither in theory nor in practice,—that their triumph over the pagan world, though on the whole the' greatest event in history, can by no means be regarded as a pure and unmixed benefit, that the influence of paganism on Christianity was not an unmixed evil, and that the historian who attempts to understand these events must always be on his guard against falling into mere eulogy, and must remember that in these days a courageous Christian critic is the best of all Christian apologists.
Fraser’s Magazine, March 1865.