Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

ture, and behaviour. Having taken his station in the middle of the upper part of the room, near a low chair covered with gold, he did not sit down till the clergy desired it.

All being now seated, says Eusebius, the bishop whose place was the first on his right hand, viz. Eustathius, patriarch of Antioch, rose, and, addressing the emperor, gave thanks to God on his account, congratulating the church on its prosperous state, which they owed to his exertions, and particularly the destruction of the idolatrous worship of Paganism. When the speaker had ended his oration and taken his seat, the emperor rose and addressed the audience in Latin, declaring the gratification it afforded him to meet them all on so glorious an occasion as the amicable adjustment of their differences, which he said had occasioned him more concern than all his wars ; but that these being at an end he had now nothing so much at heart as to be the happy instrument of settling the peace of the church, and concluded with expressing his earnest wish that they would, as speedily as possible, remove every cause of dissention, and lay the basis of a permanent peace. · This conciliating speech was no sooner delivered than a scene ensued which must have afforded the emperor a very unfavourable anticipation of the success of his efforts for peace. Before the bishops could enter upon the discussion of any of the points connected with the object of their meeting, they began to lay before the emperor their mutual grievances and to vindicate themselves. To every thing that was said, Constantine gave a patient hearing, and, by his mild and conciliating address, he ultimately prevailed upon them to come to an agreement on the great object of their meeting, namely, the rule of faith as it respected the Arian controversy and the time of observing Easter.

Socrates, the historian, assures us that, the bishops having put into the emperor's hands written libels against each other, he threw the whole into the fire, recommending it to them, according to the doctrine of their divine master, to forgive one another as they themselves hoped to be forgiven! Another writer says, that the bishops having made their complaints in person, the emperor told them to put them down in writing, and that, on the day which he had appointed to consider them, he threw the

DECISION OF THE NICENE COUNCIL.

349

whole into the fire unopened, declaring that it did not belong to him to decide the differences of Christian bishops, and that the hearing of them must be deferred to the day of judgment.

Eventually, however, the emperor succeeded in restoring the bishops to some degree of temper, and they consequently proceeded in good earnest to draw up a creed which they were all required to subscribe as the only true and orthodox faith—and which, from the place where they were assembled, has always borne the name of the Nicene creed.* The principal persons who appeared on the side of Arius, and assisted him in the public disputation, were Eusebius of Nicomedia, Theognis of Nice, and Maris of Chalcedon ; and the person who took the lead in supporting Alexander was Athanasius, then only a deacon of the church of Alexandria, but much confided in by the bishop, and of whom we shall have more to say hereafter.

As soon as the decrees and canons of the council were drawn up, they were transmitted to Silvester, bishop of Rome, who in the thirteenth council of that city, at which were present two hundred and seventy-five bishops, ratified them in the following terms :-“We confirm with our mouth that which has been decreed at Nice, a city of Bithynia, by the 318 holy bishops, for the good of the Catholic and apostolic church, mother of the faithful. We anathematize all those who shall dare to contradict the decrees of the great and holy council which was assembled at Nice, in the presence of that most pious and venerable prince, the emperor Constantine.” And to this all the bishops answered, “We consent to it.”

* As a matter of curiosity, I subjoin the summary of the orthodox faith at this time; the original may be seen in the epistle of Eusebius to the Cæsareans.

“ We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things, visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only begotten; begotten of the Father, that is, of the substance of the Father. God of God-light of light-very God of very God; begotten, not made ; consubstantial with the Father, by whom all things were made, things in heaven, and things on earth ; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate, and became man, suffered and rose again, and ascended into the heavens, and comes to judge the quick and the dead : and [we believe in] the Holy Ghost.–And the Catholic and apostolic church doth anathematize those persons who say that there was a time when the Son of God was not; that he was not before he was born ; that he was made of nothing, or of another substance, or being; or that he is created, or changeable, or convertible.”

This celebrated council commenced its discussions on June 19th, and ended them on August 25th of the same year, to the joy of Constantine, the defeat of Arius, and the triumph of the Athanasian party—having established, as far as human authority could do it, the unintelligible dogma of the eternal Sonship of the Lord Jesus Christ. Eusebius of Nicomedia, and sixteen other prelates, withstood the general sense of the council, and rejected the word “ consubstantial,”—but finding themselves in so small a minority, and that Constantine was determined to enforce respect to the decisions of the council, they all, except four, ultimately subscribed to the confession of faith. The prevailing party then proceeded to excommunicate Arius and his adherents, banishing the former from Alexandria. Letters were also written to all the churches in Egypt, Lybia, and Pentapolis, announcing the decrees, and informing them that the holy synod had condemned the opinions of Arius, and had fully determined the time for keeping Easter, exhorting them to rejoice for the good they had accomplished, having, as they said, “ cut off all manner of heresy !”.

When the business of the council was ended, Constantine treated the bishops with a sumptuous entertainment, filled their pockets, and sent them comfortably home, exhorting them, at parting, to cultivate peace and concord with one another, and requesting that none of them would envy another who might excel in wisdom or eloquence ; that they would not carry themselves haughtily towards their inferiors, but condescend to, and bear with, the weaknesses of their brethren-a pretty clear proof that he saw into their tempers, and was no stranger to the haughtiness and pride which influenced some, and the envy and hatred which prevailed in others.

The religious zeal of Constantine increased with his years ; he founded innumerable splendid edifices throughout the empire, and caused them to be decorated according to his own carnal views of what became the Christian religion which he had espoused, and had them furnished with baptisteries and every necessary apparatus. He made a journey to Jerusalem for the idle purpose of discovering, if it were possible, the sepulchre in which Christ was laid, and he caused a most magnificent place of worship to be erected at Bethlehem. He was scrupulously

BAPTISM AND DEATH OF CONSTANTINE.

351

attentive to the religious rites and ceremonies which were prescribed by the Christian clergy. He fasted, observed the festivals in commemoration of the martyrs, which superstition had by this time considerably multiplied, and he devoutly watched whole nights on the vigils of the saints. Yet all this time we hear nothing of the baptism of Constantine, which is the more perplexing as at that period it was universally considered to be the door of admission into the Christian church, and an indispensable badge of discipleship. “ It must needs seem extraordinary,” says one of his biographers, “that the emperor, who took such an active part in the affairs of the Christians, who appeared to be convinced of the truth and divinity of their religion, and was not ignorant of any of its doctrines, should so long defer being initiated into it by the sacrament of baptism.” To which the learned Dupin replies :—“Whether he thought better not to be baptized till the time of his death, with the view of washing away and atoning for all his sins at once, with the water of baptism, and being presented pure and unspotted before God, or whatever his reasons were, he never talked of baptism till his last illness.” Such is the apology of this learned Catholic for Constantine’s procrastination of the initiating rite, and it is probably the best that can be offered. It is manifest, however, that, admitting the fact to be as stated by Dupin, the emperor's views of the import of baptism needed greatly to be rectified, in order to bring them to the standard of the New Testament. When attacked, however, with his last illness, he summoned to the imperial palace of Nicomedia several Christian bishops, fervently requesting to receive at their hands the ordinance of baptism, and solemnly protesting his intentions of spending the remainder of his days as the disciple of Jesus Christ. He was accordingly baptized by Eusebius, bishop of Nicomedia, and from that time he laid aside his purple and regal robes, continuing to wear a white garment till the day of his death, which, after a short illness, took place on May 22d, in the year 337, at the age of 64, or 66, having reigned three and thirty years.

Although the well-known scepticism of Mr. Gibbon should make us cautious of placing implicit reliance on all his statements where Christianity is in question; and though, in the present instance, I suspect that some abatement is due from the height of his colouring, I will nevertheless lay before you the observations of that historian on the character of this celebrated emperor. Eusebius, as is known to most readers of ecclesiastical history, has written the life and acts of Constantine, in which he holds him up as a paragon of all that is excellent-in fact he has left us a panegyric rather than a narrative. It is only fair to hear what is said on the other side of the question, and you shall have it in Mr. Gibbon's own words. He has been commenting on the delay of Constantine's baptism, and the very condescending conduct of the clergy in relaxing the severe rules of discipline in favour of their noble convert. According to his representation of the matter, “ Constantine was permitted, by a tacit dispensation, to enjoy most of the privileges before he had contracted any of the obligations of a Christian. Instead of retiring from the congregation when the voice of the deacon dismissed the multitude, he prayed with the faithful, disputed with the bishops, preached on the most sublime and intricate subjects of theology, celebrated with sacred rites the vigil of Easter, and publicly declared himself, not only a partaker, but in some measure a priest and hierophant of the Christian mysteries.” This, if correctly told, sufficiently attests the complaisance of the bishops towards their imperial patron, and the little regard paid by them to the apostolic injunction to “ have no respect of persons.” But let us attend to our historian, who thus proceeds:“ The sacrament of baptism was supposed to contain a full and absolute expiation of sin, and the soul was instantly restored to its original purity, and entitled to the promise of eternal salvation. Among the proselytes of Christianity, there were many who judged it imprudent to precipitate a salutary rite, which could not be repeated; to throw away an inestimable privilege, which could never be recovered. By the delay of their baptism, they could venture freely to indulge their passions in the enjoyment of this world, while they retained in their own hands the means of a sure and easy absolution.” It will not, I hope, be considered an officious intrusion, if I here interrupt our historian, while I remark that the Gospel of Christ is no way answerable for the absurd and shocking statements here made. We have only to open our bibles at Romans, chapter vi., to be furnished with a complete antidote against them. In truth, such mon

« ZurückWeiter »