Hunter/Dogmatic Theology/I/VI

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Outlines of Dogmatic Theology


65. Subject of the Chapter. — This chapter deals with the moral miracles that attest the truth of Christianity more persuasively than the physical miracles and the prophecies found in the Scripture. The chapter assumes some of the teachings of history, but there is no need to touch on matters of historical controversy: the broad facts on which all agree are sufficient for our purpose.

66. Nature of the Argument. — A moral miracle, as we explained (n. 25), is an event depending upon the free-will of man, but which is inconsistent with the principles that ordinarily regulate human conduct. These moral miracles, when established, have no less probative force than physical miracles and prophecies; and they are peculiarly easy to establish, inasmuch as they concern the action of large bodies of men, which is necessarily notorious. A physical miracle is essentially an isolated occurrence; if it happened frequently, it would necessarily cease to be a probative miracle; and being isolated, it necessarily falls under the immediate cognizance of a few only, and those who know it only by report are less impressed. But a moral miracle can scarcely be recognized unless it is the act of a multitude, for the act of one or two persons may be set down to freak, illustrating the freedom of the human will. But experience shows that though the units which compose a multitude of men are individually free and capable of freaksr yet the conduct of the whole number can ordinarily be foreseen and predicted with a degree of assurance approaching that which is felt in regard to physical phenomena. But the actions of communities of men constitute the ordinary matter of the history of nations: hence our argument in this chapter will be founded on the broad facts of general history. We shall show that under the influence of Christianity masses of men have acted in a way which would not have been adopted by them under the ordinary influences of nature; it follows that the Christian influence was something other than natural, and in fact it was a miracle attesting the Christian Revelation. We shall show that the Christian religion spread rapidly in the world without there being any assignable cause for its success; that this spread was in accordance with prophecy; that it took place in spite of the Christian dogma requiring humble submission of intellect to unattractive beliefs, while the Christian moral law exacted the renouncement of much that was dear to man and the adoption of a strange and distasteful line of conduct; that the religion spread, although the civil power was exerted to the utmost to check it, numbers in all ages having suffered torments and death rather than do any act which was inconsistent with the Christian profession; and lastly, that the success of the religion was secured in spite of the misconduct of many that embraced it.

67. The Conversion of the Empire. — The change which came over the Roman Empire in the course of the half-century between 300 and 350 years after the Christian era is perhaps unique and unparalleled in history. The change is foreshadowed, if we compare two verses of the Acts of the Apostles (i. 13 and ii. 14); the Apostles had been living in the privacy of the "upper room," when the Holy Spirit came upon them and the rest; this was the foundation of the Christian Church, and the result is seen when we read that Peter stood up with the eleven and lifted up his voice and spoke to the multitude with such effect that by this one sermon three thousand of the people were converted and baptized. St. Augustine tells us how the Cross, which had been the badge of infamy and mark of the deepest scorn, was in his time raised to honour as the Christian symbol, and had its place on the crowns of kings. (Enarr. in Psalm, liv. n. 12; P.L. 36, 637.) The same point is illustrated by the story, true or false, of the vision of the Cross in the heavens, seen by Constantine when on his successful march to Rome in the year 311; the Cross bearing the inscription, "In this conquer," whether in Latin, In hoc signo vinces, or as others report in Greek, `Εν τοὐτω νὶκα. The heavenly promise or injunction thus given was abundantly fulfilled, when Constantine secured to himself the dominion of the whole Roman world and became the first Christian Emperor. A discussion of the evidence for this story will be found in the second of Newman's Essays on Miracles, c. v. §4.

But perhaps the most famous narrative of this kind is that of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. The authorities for the story will be found collected in the Bollandist Acta Sanctorum for July 27. The Seven Sleepers are mentioned in the Roman Martyrology for that day, but without any particulars, and we are quite at liberty to regard the current version of their story as pure fable, as is done by Cardinal Baronius (Annul. Eccles. ad ann. 853, n. 61 [84]); but even if false it shows how the conversion of the Empire struck the inventor of the story. It tells how seven Christian men fled from Ephesus, to avoid the persecution of the Emperor Decius, about the year 250. They took refuge in a cave, the mouth of which was blocked with stones, by order of the magistrates, and they were left to starve. They fell asleep and slept for a century or more. Meanwhile a peasant had removed some of the stones, and when the sleepers woke, one of them was able to leave the cave, and make his way to the city, hoping to buy bread. His astonishment is described at finding the Cross raised to adorn the city gates: at seeing the churches, the use of which he recognized; and at hearing passers-by swear by the name of Christ. His sleep had begun while the old pagan world still existed; he awoke at the dawn of Christian civilization.

As to the fact of the rapid spread of the Christian religion, one or two quotations will suffice. It might be enough to rest on the letter of Pliny, already cited (n. 41), from which we learn that in Bithynia at least, a large part of the population was Christian as early as the year 112; and there is no reason to suppose that the circumstances of that province were more favourable to the growth of the new religion than those of the rest of the Empire: no Apostle is recorded to have preached there. But we get positive testimony from the writings of St. Justin Martyr, who was born about 114. In his Dialogue with the Jew Trypho, "the best known Jew of his age," as Eusebius calls him (Hist. 4, 18; P.G. 20, 376), St. Justin ventures to taunt his formidable antagonist with the utter failure of the attempt of the priests and teachers of the Jewish nation to put down the Christian religion: the upshot of all their efforts was that the name of Jesus was reviled and blasphemed throughout the world (Dial. c. Tryph. Judæo, n. 117; P.G. 6, 748); a sure sign that also it was known and honoured throughout the world little more than a century after the Death of Christ. Tertullian, who wrote about the year 200, speaks to the same effect, but more fully. He is addressing the heathen Emperor (Apolog. c. 37; P.L. 1, 462): "We are but of yesterday, and we fill all that is yours; your cities, your islands, your military posts; your boroughs, your council chambers and your camps; your tribes, your corporations; the palace, the senate, the forum: your temples alone do we leave to you." And again, in his book against the Jews (Adv. Jud. c.7; P.L. 2, 610), he testifies that the tribes of Africa, Spain and Gaul and Britain, Sarmatians, Dacians, Germans and Scythians, all the peoples of the Latin world in short, had admitted Christ to reign: He conquered where the Roman arms failed; the bolted gates of cities opened to admit Him. There is no doubt some rhetorical exaggeration in this passage, but at the same time it cannot have been wholly devoid of foundation. A controversialist would ruin his cause who spoke thus boastfully and was not known to speak with substantial truthfulness.

68. This Success how accounted for. — Those writers who do not admit the Divine origin of the Christian Revelation feel the necessity of discovering some natural explanation of its success in subduing Rome; and those who are most familiar with the records of the time are those who are most pressed by the sense of this necessity. Gibbon, the historian of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, possessed an unsurpassed acquaintance with his subject, and he devotes the fifteenth chapter of his great work to pointing out five causes by which he thinks that the progress of Christianity can be explained without recourse to special Divine intervention. We will briefly examine these in order.

I. The first cause assigned by Gibbon is the inflexible, intolerant zeal of the Christians. It is quite true that the Christians in whose time the conversion of the Empire was wrought were inflexible and intolerant: that is to say, they believed the Christian Revelation to be a message from God to men, and intended for the benefit of all men; and they were anxious to extend this benefit as widely as possible, and to root out all views, principles, and practices which were opposed to this revelation, as being false and injurious. But this spirit was as far as possible from that which would recommend the religion to the Romans of the time, whose disposition in religion no less than in philosophy was eclectic; it is well represented by the story told, whether truly or falsely, by the writer of the Life of Alexander Severus, which goes under the name of Lampridius. (Historia Augusta, p. 123 E of the Paris Edition of 1620.) This Emperor reigned from 222 to 235; and the historian says, on the authority of a contemporary writer, that he each morning went through his devotions in his private chapel, where he had, amongst others, the images of Apollonius, Christ, Abraham, and Orpheus: a strange mixture, for the first-named was a Pythagorean philosopher and wonder-worker of the first Christian century, whose Life, written about the year 200 by Philostratus, seems to have been intended to be a rival of the Gospels, and to help the effort then making to revivify the dying pagan system, while Orpheus was a merely mythological personage. What Alexander is said to have done, all Rome might have done; and St. Leo truly describes the spirit which prevailed when he says (Serm. 4 [82], in Natali, Apost. Petri et Pauli, n. 2; P.L. 54, 423), that the city which held sway over all nations was itself under the sway of the errors of all; and believed herself most attentive to the claims of religion because there was no falsehood she declined to embrace. This temper, far from being conciliated by the claim of the Christian to the exclusive possession of truth, would be revolted by it: in fact, Pliny tells us in the letter already quoted (n. 41), that in his opinion the obstinacy of the Christians itself deserved punishment.

II. Gibbon assigns as the second cause of the success of Christianity the doctrine of a future life. No doubt this doctrine tended to make Christians firm in their profession, and in fact the words of Christ, "These shall go into everlasting punishment and the just into life everlasting" (St. Matt. xxv. 46), have in all ages been powerful deterrents from evil and supports of virtue; but the question remains, how it happened that this doctrine which had been taught barrenly by the poets and philosophers of paganism suddenly, when preached by Christian missionaries, became the mainspring of the life of large communities. The truth is that men did not believe in Christ because He taught the immortality of the soul: but they believed in immortality because Christ taught it.

III. The third cause is the miraculous power ascribed to the Apostolic Church. This is a real cause of the success of Christian teachers who "going forth preached everywhere; the Lord working withal, and confirming the word with signs that followed." (St. Mark xvi. 20.) That these wonderful works did as a matter of fact occur was fully admitted even by those who had every opportunity of knowing the truth and who were most concerned to deny them: but the only question raised seems to have concerned the nature of the power to which they were due, which the pagans set down as magic art, as we saw before, (n. 36.)

IV. The pure and austere morals of the Christians are assigned as the fourth cause. The same remarks are applicable here as we made on the second of Gibbon's causes. How did it happen that the Christians adopted so pure and austere a life? In truth, the Christian standard of morality was raised so high above that professed by pagan society that the Divine force of the religion is better seen in nothing than in its success in imposing this standard upon the world. We shall have another opportunity of enlarging upon this point, (n. 70.)

V. The last cause is the union and discipline of the Christian republic. Again we may use the same retort. What natural power secured this unity among men, and induced them to submit to this discipline? Gibbon makes special mention of the wealth which he conceives the Church to have possessed, and of the practice of excommunication. But this wealth must have been derived from the contributions of the Christians, and there is no inducement to join an institution in the fact that the neophyte will be expected to contribute to its support; and to be cut off from the Church can have no terrors except for those who already value the privilege of membership.

This attempt of Gibbon to account for the marvel whose existence he recognized, cannot be deemed successful, and what was said by St. Augustine (De Civit. Dei, 22. 5; P.L. 41, 756) remains true, that if the world were converted without the aid of miracles, this conversion would be the greatest miracle of all.

69. The Success foretold. — St. Augustine, in his Tract on Faith in the Invisible, has an argument which deserves mention. It is found in the fourth chapter, n. 7. (P.L. 40, 176.) He urges that the existence of the Christian religion is not only a standing miracle, but a standing fulfilment of prophecy. It is no small marvel, he says, that the whole race of man is moved by the name of one crucified Malefactor. We see before our eyes the accomplishment of the promise made to Abraham, that in him shall all the kindred of the earth be blessed. (Genesis xii. 3, and xviii. 18.) All the Gentiles have become the inheritance of the Son of God (Psalm ii. 8): all the kindreds of the Gentiles adore in His sight (Psalm xxi. 28), He that slept has risen from His sleep (Psalm xl. 9), and to Him the Gentiles come from the ends of the earth professing the vanity of the idols which their fathers worshipped (Jerem. xvi. 19), for the Lord has consumed all the gods of the earth (Sophon. ii. 11), Christ is exalted above the heavens, and His glory is over all the earth. (Psalm cvii. 6.)

The prophets and psalmists had no natural ground for speaking with such assurance; but the event proved that their assurance was justified.

70. Christian Morality. — The success which attended the efforts of Christian teachers will appear the more inexplicable when the obstacles are considered which stood in their way; and first we will mention the point which we referred to when discussing the fourth of Gibbon's vaunted Five Causes. Each man that embraced Christianity professed his readiness to submit to a moral law which put a restraint upon his natural inclinations, far severer than that which any heathen teacher had succeeded in imposing upon his disciples. The bulk of the heathen moralists went no further than to point out the expediency of just dealing, the control of passions and the like; the Stoics took a view which seemed to place morality upon a sounder basis, when they urged that it was right to live according to nature: but they failed to produce any motive that availed to induce men to do what was right, and all their exhortations were utterly without effect in moulding the lives of large bodies of men. The utility of observing certain lines of conduct and the abstract beauty of a natural life undisturbed by passion, might have been proclaimed for centuries without producing more effect then they had produced at the time of which we are speaking; Christianity laid down its positive rules, Thou shalt not steal, and the like, and crowds gathered together at the peril of their lives to pledge themselves to observe these rules, as Pliny tells us. (n. 41.) These rules were observed because they were laws laid down by God the Creator, Who had the right to impose them and the will and power to punish their transgression; and their breach would be inconsistent with the love which the same God had won by becoming Man and dying for the redemption of His creatures; but even these motives would have been powerless to produce their effect had not the grace of the same God worked invisibly in the hearts of men, strengthening them to do that which would have been beyond their natural strength.

I. To understand something of the effect of the preaching of this law upon mankind, we may contrast the manners of Europe of the third century after Christ with those of the nineteenth. And first, idolatry was once universal and now is unknown, so utterly unknown that men find it hard to believe that such folly and wickedness ever existed, and suspect that Isaias was exaggerating in the picture he draws (xliv. 13 - 17) of the carpenter who uses one and the same piece of wood, part for fuel to cook his pottage and part to make a god and bow down before it and pray to it and say, "Deliver me, for thou art my god." But that actual idolatry really prevailed even among educated men long after the Birth of Christ is proved by the distinct avowal of Arnobius, the African teacher of rhetoric, who being converted from paganism to Christianity not much earlier than the year 300, wrote a brilliant exposure of the follies and contradictions of the popular religion. He declares (Adv. Gentes, I, 39; P.L. 5, 767) that, before his conversion, in his blindness he used to venerate gods fashioned on the anvil with the hammer; and he would speak to a log of wood and beg benefits from it. This folly now can scarcely be found in the Western world.

II. Christian honour of purity has replaced the foul and public vice which formed a leading and most attractive part of the ceremonial of idol worship. The heathens honoured their gods by the use of practices which the Apostle will not allow to be named among Christians. (Ephes. v. 3.) We read of this in the account of the rites by which the golden calf was worshipped in the desert (Exodus xxxii. 6): the word translated "play" is the same as that which, in Genesis xxxix. 14 and 17, is rendered "abuse." The true character of Roman games in honour of the gods is set forth in Tertullian's tract, De Spectaculis, and this should be remembered whenever Patristic authority is invoked against the practice of going to the theatre. (P.L. 1, 630 662.) In no country which has been under Christian influence are certain acts seen in public, although heathen morality found in them nothing to blame. Moreover, Christian instinct has in every age taught thousands that their service of God will be most perfect if offered in the state of perfect chastity, in imitation of the Virgin Mother of their Lord: and this life, so contrary to nature as to seem impossible, is found to be easy in virtue of the grace that God gives to those whom He calls. The Christian religion has not yet secured that all men shall observe the law: but this much has notoriously been gained, that all who make any account of the name of Christian that they bear profess to hold purity in honour, and there is no public indulgence in immorality.

III. The honour in which the Mother of God is held has led Christians to treat the weaker sex with respect, and show a deference to woman to which the most refined races of antiquity were total strangers. The wife, who used to be the toiling slave of the husband and the instrument of his pleasures, liable to be sent away at his caprice, has been raised by Christianity to be his life-long companion, sharing with him the headship of the family.

IV. The Christian law that forbade murder was felt to extend itself so far as to forbid the taking of life, except by public authority in the case of malefactors, from any human being, of whatever age. Heathen morality allowed infanticide, and Aristotle (Politics, vii. 16) lays down the rules under which it ought to be practised. In Rome it continued in use long after the old severity of the patria potestas had been mitigated, and when public opinion would no longer have tolerated the act of a father who put to death the child whom he had once acknowledged. The practice was slow in disappearing. Even after the time of Constantine, the Imperial laws upon the subject did not aim at securing the life of a child whose parents had exposed it to die of cold and want of food: they were concerned with the respective property rights of the natural father who had exposed the child and of the foster-father who had found and reared it; the child was a slave, but which parent was owner of this slave? At present, in no Christian State does either law or public opinion sanction infanticide.

V. At the present day the amount of private alms-giving by Christians exceeds all that can be suspected except by those who have special opportunities of knowing the truth; and statesmen have always before their eyes the necessity of public provision for the poor, so as to secure as far as possible that the whole community join in maintaining those who are unable to maintain themselves. The records of pagan antiquity will be searched in vain for any institution of the kind: but the words of Christ, that he that gave a cup of cold water should not lose his reward (St. Matt. x. 42), that what was done to one of His least brethren was done to Him (St. Matt. xxv. 40), sank deep into the hearts of His disciples, and led in some cases to the community of goods described in the Acts of the Apostles, (ii. 44 - 46.) The administration of relief was not without its difficulties (Acts vi. 1), but the system was persevered in, and became a regular part of the polity of the Church. St. Ambrose, in the second of his three Books on the Duties of the Ministers of the Church, argues that even the consecrated vessels that serve for the use of the altar must be sold, when money is needed for the redemption of captives (De Off. 2. 28; P.L. 16. 139), and he tells the famous story of St. Lawrence, the deacon, who being required to surrender the treasures of the Church to the tyrant, pointed to the poor, by whose hands all his wealth had been carried to the store-houses of Heaven.

VI. Perhaps the most striking illustration of the influence of Christianity upon society is found in the success which has attended the efforts of the Church to mitigate the evils of slavery and at length abolish the institution in all Christian countries. In early days, the servant of the Christian, by receiving Baptism, became the most dear brother of his master (Philemon 16); it was recognized that the souls of master and slave came from the hand of a common Creator, that they were alike redeemed with the Blood of the Son of God, and sanctified by the same Sacraments: and although cruel abuses long continued, yet the ordinary practices of upright pagans were never possible in a Christian society. Cato the Elder advises the householder to get rid of old harness and old slaves, sickly slaves and sickly sheep, utterly regardless of the common human nature which Moralists talked about.

VII. The Roman theory of the origin of slavery was that a prisoner of war might lawfully be slain, and that a victorious general who waived this right for a while, might employ the services of his captive. (Justinian, Institutes, 1, 3, 3.) Prisoners taken in battle are now protected by the so-called "laws of war," and all nations that bear the name of Christian profess to observe these laws, which do much towards forcing the stronger party to refrain from using his strength to the uttermost and to secure that the natural rights of the weaker shall be respected. Other points might be mentioned, but these seven are sufficient to show how vast a revolution has been effected in human society by the preaching of the Gospel.

71. Bad Example and State Opposition. — We have reserved to the last place the mention of the greatest and most painful of all the hindrances against which the Christian preacher has to struggle: the bad lives of many Christians. In the days of persecution we read of the courage of the martyrs, but we read also of the lapsed, who had yielded under torture or the fear of torture; in later times the history of missions is full of the complaints of labourers that the bad lives of professing Christians repelled pagans from a religion the sublimity of which they recognized. The Jews have a saying that if Israel kept the Law for but one day, Messiah would come; and we may think that if Christians abstained from sin for but one day, the world would be converted. God wishes to be served freely by His rational creatures, and therefore does not constrain their will: He leaves them free, and they so use their freedom as to hinder the acceptance of the Gospel by all the world.

In spite of the great difficulty just mentioned, the Christian religion won its triumph, and this in defiance of the utmost efforts of the yet unbroken Roman Government. There has been much controversy as to the actual number of martyrs who suffered in the various persecutions which began under Nero, in 65, and did not end until Constantine, in 313, issued from Milan the edict which secured toleration. We shall not enter on the question, which will be found discussed by Father Hurter in a dissertation appended to the fourth volume of his Opuscula Sanctorum Patrum: it is enough for our purpose to remark that Tacitus speaks (n. 42) of the vast multitude of those that suffered under Nero; and that Pliny was deterred from acting on his own principles in Bithynia by the multitude of those whom he would have been forced to put to death. The Christian Apologists constantly taunted the tyrants with their helplessness, and the failure of all their efforts to crush the rising community; these taunts would have been pointless had not the Government made such efforts, and yet they were boldly and publicly addressed to men who knew the truth and were themselves engaged in carrying out the measures of the Government. Thus Tertullian told the Emperor Septimus Severus what the Emperor must have felt to be the truth: "You mow us down, and we spring up in greater luxuriance: each drop of Christian blood that you shed is a seed from which rises a harvest." (Apol. c. 50; P.L. 1, 555.) This strife between the powers of the world and the faith of Christ began yet earlier: the Jewish Council commanded the Apostles to preach no more, and were met by the question, If it be just in the sight of God to hear you rather than God, judge ye. No answer was forthcoming, so they had recourse to threats, imprisonment, and scourging, and they did not heed the wise advice of Gamaliel to let these men alone, for if their work were of men, it would come to nought: it has not come to nought, showing that it is not of men, but of God. The instructive history is read in the fourth and fifth chapters of the Acts of the Apostles.

The same story has been repeated as often as the State, deserting its true work, has usurped the province of the Church, trying to be master where it should be nursing-father. (Isaias xlix. 23.) The phases of the struggle are recounted by ecclesiastical historians; those who have maintained so unequal a contest, unique in the world, must have been supported by a strength which is more than natural.

72. Recapitulation. — In this chapter we have tried to show that the conversion of the Roman Empire to the Christian Faith was itself a moral miracle, proving that this Faith came from God; especially seeing that the attempt of Gibbon to account for this success by natural causes is a failure. The marvel is the greater when we remember that this success was foretold by prophecy; that it altered the whole tone of society in many conspicuous points: and that it was won in spite of the bad lives of many Christians, in defiance of the strenuous opposition of the State.

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