Christianity, at first, was preached by Jews to Jews, as a reformed Judaism. St James, and to a lesser extent St Peter, wished it to remain no more than this, and they might have prevailed but for St Paul, who was determined to admit gentiles without demanding circumcision or submission to the Mosaic Law. The contention between the two factions is related in the Acts of the Apostles, from a Pauline point of view. The communities of Christians that St Paul established in many places, were, no doubt, composed partly of converts from among the Jews, partly of gentiles seeking a new religion. The certainties of Judaism made it attractive in that age of dissolving faiths, but circumcision was an obstacle to the conversion of men. The ritual laws in regard to food were also inconvenient. These two obstacles, even if there had been no others, would have made it almost impossible for the Hebrew religion to become universal. Christianity, owing to St Paul, retained what was attractive in the doctrines of the Jews, without the features that gentiles found hardest to assimilate.
The view that the Jews were the Chosen People remained, however, obnoxious to Greek pride. This view was radically rejected by the Gnostics. They, or at least some of them, held that the sensible world had been created by an inferior deity named Ialdabaoth, the rebellious son of Sophia (heavenly wisdom). He, they said, is the Yahweh of the Old Testament, while the serpent, so far from being wicked, was engaged in warning Eve against his deceptions. For a long time, the supreme deity allowed Ialdabaoth free play; at last He sent His Son to inhabit temporarily the body of the man Jesus, and to liberate the world from the false teaching of Moses. Those who held this view, or something like it, combined it, as a rule, with a Platonic philosophy; Plotinus, as we saw, found some difficulty in refuting it. Gnosticism afforded a half-way house between philosophic paganism and Christianity, for, while it honoured Christ, it thought ill of the Jews. The same was true, later, of Manichæism, through which St Augustine came to the Catholic Faith. Manichæism combined Christian and Zoroastrian elements, teaching that evil is a positive principle, embodied in matter, while the good principle is embodied in spirit. It condemned meat-eating, and all sex, even in marriage. Such intermediate doctrines helped much in the gradual conversion of cultivated men of Greek speech; but the New Testament warns true believers against them: 'O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science [Gnosis] falsely so called: which some professing have erred concerning the faith.'1
Gnostics and Manichæans continued to flourish until the government became Christian. After that time they were led to conceal their beliefs, but they still had a subterranean influence. One of the doctrines of a certain sect of Gnostics was adopted by Mohammed. They taught that Jesus was a mere man, and that the Son of God descended upon him at the baptism, and abandoned him at the time of the Passion. In support of this view they appealed to the text: 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?'2—a text which, it must be confessed, Christians have always found difficult. The Gnostics considered it unworthy of the Son of God to be born, to be an infant, and, above all, to die on the cross; they said that these things had befallen the man Jesus, but not the divine Son of God. Mohammed, who recognized Jesus as a prophet, though not as divine, had a strong class feeling that prophets ought not to come to a bad end. He therefore adopted the view of the Docetics (a Gnostic sect), according to which it was a mere phantom that hung upon the cross, upon which, impotently and ignorantly, Jews and Romans wreaked their ineffectual vengeance. In this way, something of Gnosticism passed over into the orthodox doctrine of Islam.
The attitude of Christians to contemporary Jews early became hostile. The received view was that God had spoken to the patriarchs and prophets, who were holy men, and had foretold the coming of Christ; but when Christ came, the Jews failed to recognize Him, and were thenceforth to be accounted wicked. Moreover Christ had abrogated the Mosaic Law, substituting the two commandments to love God and our neighbour; this, also, the Jews perversely failed to recognize. As soon as the State became Christian, anti-Semitism, in its medieval form, began, nominally as a manifestation of Christian zeal. How far the economic motives, by which it was inflamed in later times, operated in the Christian Empire, it seems impossible to ascertain.
In proportion as Christianity became hellenized, it became theological. Jewish theology was always simple. Yahweh developed from a tribal deity into the sole omnipotent God who created heaven and earth; divine justice, when it was seen not to confer earthly prosperity upon the virtuous, was transferred to heaven, which entailed belief in immortality. But throughout its evolution the Jewish creed involved nothing complicated and metaphysical; it had no mysteries, and every Jew could understand it.
This Jewish simplicity, on the whole, still characterizes the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), but has already disappeared in St John, where Christ is identified with the Platonic-Stoic Logos. It is less Christ the Man than Christ the theological figure that interests the fourth evangelist. This is still more true of the Fathers; you will find, in their writings, many more allusions to St John than to the other three gospels put together. The Pauline epistles also contain much theology, especially as regards salvation; at the same time they show a considerable acquaintance with Greek culture—a quotation from Menander, an allusion to Epimenides the Cretan who said that all Cretans are liars, and so on. Nevertheless St Paul3 says: 'Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit.'
The synthesis of Greek philosophy and Hebrew scriptures remained more or less haphazard and fragmentary until the time of Origen (A.D. 185–254). Origen, like Philo, lived in Alexandria, which, owing to commerce and the university, was, from its foundation to its fall, the chief centre of learned syncretism. Like his contemporary Plotinus, he was a pupil of Ammonius Saccas, whom many regard as the founder of Neoplatonism. His doctrines, as set forth in his work De Principiis, have much affinity to those of Plotinus—more, in fact, than is compatible with orthodoxy.
There is, Origen says, nothing wholly incorporeal except God—Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The stars are living rational beings, to whom God has given souls that were already in existence. The sun, he thinks, can sin. The souls of men, as Plato taught, come to them at birth from elsewhere, having existed even since the Creation. Nous and soul are distinguished more or less as in Plotinus. When Nous falls away, it becomes soul; soul, when virtuous, becomes Nous. Ultimately all spirits will become wholly submissive to Christ, and will then be bodiless. Even the devil will be saved at the last.
Origen, in spite of being recognized as one of the Fathers, was, in later times, condemned as having maintained four heresies:
1. The pre-existence of souls, as taught by Plato.
2. That the human nature of Christ, and not only His divine nature, existed before the Incarnation.
3. That, at the resurrection, our bodies will be transformed into absolutely ethereal bodies.
4. That all men, and even devils, shall be saved at the last.
St Jerome, who had expressed a somewhat unguarded admiration of Origen for his work in establishing the text of the Old Testament, found it prudent, subsequently, to expend much time and vehemence in repudiating his theological errors.
Origen's aberrations were not only theological; in his youth he was guilty of an irreparable error through a too literal interpretation of the text: 'There be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake.'4 This method of escaping the temptations of the flesh, which
Origen rashly adopted, had been condemned by the Church; moreover it made him ineligible for holy orders, although some ecclesiastics seem to have thought otherwise, thereby giving rise to unedifying controversies. Origen's longest work is a book entitled Against Celsus. Celsus was the author of a book (now lost) against Christianity, and Origen set to work to answer him point by point. Celsus begins by objecting to Christians because they belong to illegal associations; this Origen does not deny, but claims to be a virtue, like tyrannicide. He then comes to what is no doubt the real basis for the dislike of Christianity: Christianity, says Celsus, comes from the Jews, who are barbarians; and only Greeks can extract sense out of the teachings of barbarians. Origen replies that anyone coming from Greek philosophy to the Gospels would conclude that they are true, and supply a demonstration satisfying to the Greek intellect. But further, 'The Gospel has a demonstration of its own, more divine than any established by Grecian dialectics. And this diviner method is called by the apostle the "manifestation of the Spirit and of power"; of "the Spirit", on account of the prophecies, which are sufficient to produce faith in any one who reads them, especially in those things which relate to Christ; and of "power", because of the signs and wonders which we must believe to have been performed, both on many other grounds, and on this, that traces of them are still preserved among those who regulate their lives by the precepts of the Gospel.'5
This passage is interesting, as showing already the twofold argument for belief which is characteristic of Christian philosophy. On the one hand, pure reason, rightly exercised, suffices to establish the essentials of the Christian faith, more especially God, immortality, and free will. But on the other hand the Scriptures prove not only these bare essentials, but much more; and the divine inspiration of the Scriptures is proved by the fact that the prophets
foretold the coming of the Messiah, by the miracles, and by the beneficent effects of belief on the lives of the faithful. Some of these arguments are now considered out of date, but the last of them was still employed by William James. All of them, until the Renaissance, were accepted by every Christian philosopher.
Some of Origen's arguments are curious. He says that magicians invoke the 'God of Abraham', often without knowing who He is; but apparently this invocation is specially potent. Names are essential in magic; it is not indifferent whether God is called by His Jewish, Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek, or Brahman name. Magic formulae lose their efficacy when translated. One is led to suppose that the magicians of the time used formulae from all known religions, but if Origen is right, those derived from Hebrew sources were the most effective. The argument is the more curious as he points out that Moses forbade sorcery.6
Christians, we are told, should not take part in the government of the State, but only of the 'divine nation', i.e., the Church.7 This doctrine, of course, was somewhat modified after the time of Constantine, but something of it survived. It is implicit in St Augustine's City of God. It led churchmen, at the time of the fall of the Western Empire, to look on passively at secular disasters, while they exercised their very great talents in Church discipline, theological controversy, and the spread of monasticism. Some trace of it still exists: most people regard politics as 'worldly' and unworthy of any really holy man.
Church government developed slowly during the first three centuries, and rapidly after the conversion of Constantine. Bishops were popularly elected; gradually they acquired considerable power over Christians in their own dioceses, but before Constantine there was hardly any form of central government over the whole Church. The power of bishops in great cities was enhanced by the practice of almsgiving: the offerings of the faithful were administered by the bishop, who could give or withhold charity to the poor. There came thus to be a mob of the destitute, ready to do the bishop's will. When the State became Christian, the bishops were given judicial and administrative functions. There came also to be a central government, at least in matters of doctrine. Constantine was annoyed by the quarrel between Catholics and Arians; having thrown in his lot with the Christians, he wanted them to be a united party. For the purpose of healing dissensions, he caused the convening of the oecumenical Council of Nicæa, which drew up the Nicene Creed,8 and, so far as the Arian controversy was concerned, determined for all time the standard of orthodoxy. Other later controversies were
similarly decided by oecumenical councils, until the division between East and West and the Eastern refusal to admit the authority of the Pope made them impossible.
The Pope, though officially the most important individual in the Church, had no authority over the Church as a whole until a much later period. The gradual growth of the papal power is a very interesting subject, which I shall deal with in later chapters.
The growth of Christianity before Constantine, as well as the motives of his conversion, has been variously explained by various authors. Gibbon9 assigns five causes:
'I. The inflexible, and, if we may use the expression, the intolerant zeal of the Christians, derived, it is true, from the Jewish religion, but purified from the narrow and unsocial spirit which, instead of inviting, had deterred the Gentiles from embracing the law of Moses.
'II. The doctrine of a future life, improved by every additional circumstance which could give weight and efficacy to that important truth.
'III. The miraculous powers ascribed to the primitive Church.
'IV. The pure and austere morals of the Christians.
'V. The union and discipline of the Christian republic, which gradually formed an independent and increasing State in the heart of the Roman empire.'
Broadly speaking, this analysis may be accepted, but with some comments. The first cause—the inflexibility and intolerance derived from the Jews—may be wholly accepted. We have seen in our own day the advantages of intolerance in propaganda. The Christians, for the most part, believed that they alone would go to heaven, and that the most awful punishments would, in the next world, fall upon the heathen. The other religions which competed for favour during the third century had not this threatening character. The worshippers of the Great Mother, for example, while they had a ceremony—the Taurobolium—which was analogous to baptism, did teach that those who omitted it would go to hell. It may be remarked, incidentally, that the Taurobolium was expensive: a bull had to be killed, and its blood allowed to trickle over the convert. A rite of this sort is aristocratic, and cannot be the basis of a religion which is to embrace the great bulk of the population, rich and poor, free and slave. In such respects, Christianity had an advantage over all its rivals.
As regards the doctrine of a future life, in the West it was first taught by the Orphics and thence adopted by Greek philosophers. The Hebrew prophets,
some of them, taught the resurrection of the body, but it seems to have been from the Greeks that the Jews learnt to believe in the resurrection of the spirit.10 The doctrine of immortality, in Greece, had a popular form in Orphism and a learned form in Platonism. The latter, being based upon difficult arguments, could not become widely popular; the Orphic form, however, probably had a great influence on the general opinions of later antiquity, not only among pagans, but also among Jews and Christians. Elements of mystery religions, both Orphic and Asiatic, enter largely into Christian theology; in all of them, the central myth is that of the dying god who rises again.11 I think, therefore, that the doctrine of immortality must have had less to do with the spread of Christianity than Gibbon thought.
Miracles certainly played a very large part in Christian propaganda. But miracles, in later antiquity, were very common, and were not the prerogative of any one religion. It is not altogether easy to see why, in this competition, the Christian miracles came to be more widely believed than those of other sects. I think Gibbon omits one very important matter, namely the possession of a Sacred Book. The miracles to which Christians appealed had begun in a remote antiquity, among a nation which the ancients felt to be mysterious; there was a consistent history, from the Creation onwards, according to which Providence had always worked wonders, first for the Jews, then for the Christians. To a modern historical student it is obvious that the early history of the Israelites is in the main legendary, but not so to the ancients. They believed in the Homeric account of the siege of Troy, in Romulus and Remus, and so on; why, asks Origen, should you accept these traditions and reject those of the Jews? To this argument there was no logical answer. It was therefore natural to accept Old Testament miracles, and, when they had been admitted, those of more recent date became credible, especially in view of the Christian interpretation of the prophets.
The morals of the Christians, before Constantine, were undoubtedly very superior to those of average pagans. The Christians were persecuted at times, and were almost always at a disadvantage in competition with pagans. They believed firmly that virtue would be rewarded in heaven and sin punished in hell. Their sexual ethics had a strictness that was rare in antiquity. Pliny, whose official duty it was to persecute them, testifies to their high moral character. After the conversion of Constantine, there were, of course, time-servers among Christians; but prominent ecclesiastics, with some exceptions, continued to be men of inflexible moral principles. I think Gibbon is right in attributing great importance to this high moral level as one of the causes of the spread of Christianity.
Gibbon puts last 'the union and discipline of the Christian republic'. I think that, from a political point of view, this was the most important of his five causes. In the modern world, we are accustomed to political organization; every politician has to reckon with the Catholic vote, but it is balanced by the vote of other organized groups. A Catholic candidate for the American Presidency is at a disadvantage, because of Protestant prejudice. But, if there were no such thing as Protestant prejudice, a Catholic candidate would stand a better chance than any other. This seems to have been Constantine's calculation. The support of the Christians, as a single organized bloc, was to be obtained by favouring them. Whatever dislike of the Christians existed was unorganized and politically ineffective. Probably Rostovtseff is right in holding that a large part of the army was Christian, and that this was what most influenced Constantine. However that may be, the Christians, while still a minority, had a kind of organization which was then new, though now common, and which gave them all the political influence of a pressure group to which no other pressure groups are opposed. This was the natural consequence of their virtual monopoly of zeal, and their zeal was an inheritance from the Jews.
Unfortunately, as soon as the Christians acquired political power, they turned their zeal against each other. There had been heresies, not a few, before Constantine, but the orthodox had had no means of punishing them. When the State became Christian, great prizes, in the shape of power and wealth, became open to ecclesiastics; there were disputed elections, and theological quarrels were also quarrels for worldly advantages. Constantine himself preserved a certain degree of neutrality in the disputes of theologians, but after his death (337) his successors (except for Julian the Apostate) were, in a greater or less degree, favourable to the Arians, until the accession of Theodosius in 379.
The hero of this period is Athanasius (ca. 297–373), who was throughout his long life the most intrepid champion of Nicene orthodoxy.
The period from Constantine to the Council of Chalcedon (451) is peculiar owing to the political importance of theology. Two questions successively agitated the Christian world: first, the nature of the Trinity, and then the doctrine of the Incarnation. Only the first of these was to the fore in the time of Athanasius. Arius, a cultivated Alexandrian priest, maintained that the Son is not the equal of the Father, but created by Him. At an earlier period, this view might not have aroused much antagonism, but in the fourth century most theologians rejected it. The view which finally prevailed was that the Father and the Son were equal, and of the same substance; they were, however, distinct Persons. The view that they were not distinct, but only different aspects of one Being, was the Sabellian heresy, called after its founder Sabellius. Orthodoxy thus had to tread a narrow line: those who unduly emphasized the distinctness of the Father and the Son were in danger of Arianism, and those who unduly emphasized their oneness were in danger of Sabellianism.
The doctrines of Arius were condemned by the Council of Nicæa (325) by an overwhelming majority. But various modifications were suggested by various theologians, and favoured by Emperors. Athanasius, who was Bishop of Alexandria from 328 till his death, was constantly in exile because of his zeal for Nicene orthodoxy. He had immense popularity in Egypt, which, throughout the controversy, followed him unwaveringly. It is curious that, in the course of theological controversy, national (or at least regional) feeling, which had seemed extinct since the Roman conquest, revived. Constantinople and Asia inclined to Arianism; Egypt was fanatically Athanasian; the West steadfastly adhered to the decrees of the Council of Nicæa. After the Arian controversy was ended, new controversies, of a more or less kindred sort, arose, in which Egypt became heretical in one direction and Syria in another. These heresies, which were persecuted by the orthodox, impaired the unity of the Eastern Empire, and facilitated the Mohammedan conquest. The separatist movements, in themselves, are not surprising, but it is curious that they should have been associated with very subtle and abtruse theological questions.
The Emperors, from 335 to 378, favoured more or less Arian opinions as far as they dared, except for Julian the Apostate (361–363), who, as a pagan, was neutral as regards the internal disputes of the Christians. At last, in 379, the Emperor Theodosius gave his full support to the Catholics, and their victory throughout the Empire was complete. St Ambrose, St Jerome, and St Augustine, whom we shall consider in the next chapter, lived most of their lives during this period of Catholic triumph. It was succeeded, however, in the West, by another Arian domination, that of the Goths and Vandals, who, between them, conquered most of the Western Empire. Their power lasted for about a century, at the end of which it was destroyed by Justinian, the Lombards, and the Franks, of whom Justinian and the Franks, and ultimately the Lombards also, were orthodox. Thus at last the Catholic faith achieved definitive success.