The policy of the emperors and the estate, as far as it concerned religion, was happily seconded by the reflections of the enlightened, and by the habits of the superstitious part of their subjects. The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; by the magistrate as equally useful. Under this spirit of toleration the Christian church grew with great rapidity. Five main causes assisted this development.
1. The inflexible and intolerant zeal of the Christians, purified from the narrow and unsocial spirit of the Jewish religion.
2. The doctrine of a future life, improved by every additional circumstance which could give weight and efficacy to that important truth.
3. The miraculous powers ascribed to the primitive Church.
4. The pure and austere morals of the early Christians.
5. The union and discipline of the Christian republic, which gradually formed an independent and increasing state in the heart of the Roman Empire.
The early Christians of the mother church at Jerusalem subscribed to the Mosaic law, and the first fifteen bishops of Jerusalem were all circumcised Jews. But the Gentile church rejected the intolerable weight of Mosaic ceremonies, and at length refused to their more scrupulous brethren the same toleration which at first they had humbly solicited for their own practice.
After the ruin of the temple, of the city and of the public religion of the Jews, the Nazarenes, as the Christian Jews of Jerusalem were called, retired to the little town of Pella, from whence they could make easy and frequent pilgrimages to the Holy City. When the Emperor Hadrian forbade the Jewish people from approaching the precincts of the city, the Nazarenes escaped from the common proscription by disavowing the Mosaic law. A small remnant, however, still combined the Mosaic ceremonies with the Christian faith, and existed, until the fourth century, under the name of Ebeonites.
From the acknowledged truth of the Jewish religion the Ebeonites had concluded that it could never be abolished. From its supposed imperfection the sect of the Gnostics, as hastily inferred that it never was instituted by the wisdom of the Deity. They treated with profane derision the Mosaic account of the creation and fall of man, and refused to discover any of the features of the wise and omnipotent Father of the universe in the Jehovah of the Old Testament. They adored the Christ as the first and brightest emanation of the Deity, who appeared upon earth to rescue mankind from their various errors and to reveal a new system of truth and perfection.
The three sects of the primitive church, the orthodox, the Ebeonites and the Gnostics, were united in their abhorrence of idolatry and the pagan system of polytheism. Their avoidance, even despite the law, of pagan ceremonies, served to fortify the zeal of the Christians.
The immortality of the soul had been held by a few sages of Greece and Rome, who were unwilling to conform themselves with the beasts of the field, or to suppose that a being for whose dignity they entertained the most sincere admiration could be limited to a spot of earth, and to a few years of duration. But reason could not justify the spacious and noble principles of the disciples of Plato.
TO the Christians alone the authority of Christ gave a certainty of a future life, and when the promise of eternal happiness was proposed to mankind on condition of adopting the faith and of observing the precepts of the Gospel, it is no wonder that so advantageous an offer should have been accepted by great numbers of every religion, of every rank, and of every province in the Roman Empire. The immediate expectation of the second coming of Christ and the reign of the Son of God with His saints for a thousand years, strengthened the ancient Christians against all trials and sufferings.
The supernatural gifts which even in this life were ascribed to the Christians above the rest of mankind must have conduced to their own comfort, and very frequently to the conviction of infidels. The gift of tongues, of vision and of prophecy, the power of expelling demons, of healing the sick and of raising the dead, were prodigies claimed by the Christian Church at the time of the apostles and their first disciples.
THE duty of an historian does not call upon him to interpose his private judgement in a controversy as to the truth of these miracles, but he ought to attempt to define with precision the limits of that period to which we might be disposed to extend the gift of supernatural power. His task is perplexing, for every age bears testimony to the wonderful events for which it was distinguished; but it is evident that there must have been some period in which miraculous powers were either suddenly or gradually withdrawn from the Christian Church. Whatever era is chosen for that purpose, it is clear that after that era credulity performed the office of faith, fanaticism assumed the language of inspiration, and the effects of accidents, or contrivance, were ascribed to supernatural causes.
Repentance for their past sins, and the laudable desire of supporting the reputation of the society in which they were engaged, rendered the lives of the primitive Christians much purer and more austere than those of their pagan contemporaries or their degenerate successors. They were insistent in their condemnation of pleasure and luxury and in their search after purity, were induced to approve reluctantly that institution of marriage which they were compelled to tolerate. A state of celibacy was regarded as the nearest approach to the divine perfection, and there were in the primitive church a great number of persons devoted to the profession of perpetual chastity.
The government of the primitive church was based on the principles of freedom and equality. The societies which were instituted in the cities of the Roman empire were united only by the ties of faith and charity. The want of discipline and human learning was supplied by the occasional assistance of the 'prophets'--men or women who, as often as they felt the divine impulse, poured forth the effusions of the spirit in the assembly of the faithful.
IN the course of time bishops and presbyters exercised solely the functions of legislation and spiritual guidance. A hundred years after the death of the apostles, the bishop, acting as the president of the presbyterial college, administered the sacrament and discipline of the Church, managed the public funds and determined all such differences as the faithful were unwilling to expose before the tribunal of an idolatrous judge.
Every society formed within itself a separate and independent republic, and towards the end of the second century, realising the advantages that might result from a closer union of their interests and designs, these little states adopted the useful institution of a provincial synod. The bishops of the various churches met in the capital of the province at stated periods and issued their decrees or canons. The institution of synods was so well suited to private ambition and to public interest that it was received throughout the whole empire. A regular correspondence was established between the provincial councils, which mutually communicated and approved their respective proceedings and the Catholic Church soon assumed the form and acquired the strength of a great federative republic.
The authority of the bishops insensibly increased, and a new authority also sprang up. The meeting of the provincial synods in the capital of the province gave to the bishop of that capital a certain pre-eminence, and under the lofty title of Metropolitans and Primates, they usurped for themselves an authority similar to that which the bishops had so lately assumed above the inferior clergy. The bishop of Rome, as the bishop of the capital of the empire, claimed, and was allowed, a certain pre-eminence.
THE community of goods which for a short time had been adopted in the primitive church was gradually abolished, and a system of voluntary gifts was substituted. In the time of the Emperor Decius it was the opinion of the magistrates that the Christians of Rome were possessed of very considerable wealth, and several laws, enacted with the same design as our statutes of mortmain, forbade real estate being given or bequeathed to any corporate body, without special sanctions. The bishops distributed these revenues, exercised the right of exclusion or excommunication of recalcitrant members of the Church, and maintained the dignity of their office with ever increasing pomp.
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