« ZurückWeiter »
GIBBON'S CHARACTER OF CONSTANTINE THE GREAT. 353
strous inferences could spring only from the grossest ignorance of the import of Christian baptism. But to proceed
“ The Gospel had made a much fainter impression on the heart than on the understanding of Constantine himself. He pursued the great object of his ambition through the dark and bloody paths of war and policy; and, after the victory, he abandoned himself, without moderation, to the abuse of his fortune. As he gradually advanced in the knowledge of truth, he proportionably declined in the practice of virtue; and the same year of his reign in which he convened the council of Nice was polluted by the execution, or rather the murder, of Crispus his eldest son. From this time the emperor could no longer hesitate in the choice of a religion; he could no longer be ignorant that the church was possessed of an infallible remedy, though he chose to defer the application of it till the approach of death had removed the temptation and danger of a relapse. The bishops, whom he summoned in his last illness to the palace of Nicomedia, were edified by the fervour with which he requested and received the sacrament of baptism, by the solemn protestation that the remainder of his life should be worthy of a disciple of Christ, and by his humble refusal to wear the purple after he had been clothed in the white garment of a Neophyte. The example and reputation of Constantine seemed to countenance the delay of baptism. Future tyrants were encouraged to believe that the innocent blood which they might shed, in a long reign, would instantly be washed away in the waters of regeneration, and the abuse of religion dangerously undermined the foundation of moral virtue.”
It is not difficult to ascer tain, from this quotation, in what point of view the conversion of Constantine was regarded by our historian. “ The gratitude of the church,” he tells us,“ has exalted the virtues and excused the failings of a generous patron, who seated Christianity on the throne of the Roman world; and the Greeks, who celebrate the festival of the imperial saint, seldom mention the name of Constantine without adding the title of · Equal to the Apostles. Such a comparison (continues our historian, and in this I most fully agree with him) if it alludes to the character of those divine missionaries, must be imputed to the extravagance of impious flattery.” Certainly-not • Vol. 1.
only are the cases dissimilar, but they form a perfect contrast. In the case of the apostles, we see a company of rude and illiterate men, destitute of every inviting quality, such as education, wealth, or knowledge of the world, power, and influence, going forth to testify a doctrine most unpalateable to the self-righteous Jew and the philosophic Greek ; yet, by means of its own intrinsic evidence, carrying conviction to the minds of men, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ. In the other case we contemplate a state of things in all respects the reverse ;-instead of poverty and shame, we have the influence of riches and honour, temporal grandeur and the pride of life—for reproach we have preferment;-in short, every thing is changed :—what comparison then can be instituted between them?
“ If the parallel (between Constantine and the apostles) be confined to the extent and number of the converts gained,”says Mr. Gibbon, “ the success of the emperor might perhaps equal that of the apostles themselves. By the edicts of toleration, he removed the temporal disadvantages which had hitherto retarded the progress of Christianity, and its active and numerous ministers received a free permission, a liberal encouragement, to recommend the truths of revelation by every argument that could affect the reason or piety of mankind. The exact balance of the two religions continued but a moment; and the piercing eye of ambition and avarice soon discovered that the profession of Christianity might contribute to the interest of the present, as well as of a future life. The hopes of wealth and honours, the example of an emperor, his exhortations, his irresistible smiles, diffused conviction among the venal and obsequious crowds which usually fill the apartments of a palace. The cities which signified a forward zeal, by the voluntary destruction of their (Pagan) temples, were distinguished by municipal privileges, and rewarded with popular donatives: and the new capital of the East gloried in the singular advantage, that Constantinople was never profaned by the worship of idols. As the lower ranks of society are governed by imitation, the conversion of those who possessed any eminence of birth, of power, or of riches, was soon followed by dependent multitudes. We are told that, in one year, twelve thousand men were baptized at Rome, besides a proportionable number of women and children;
CONSTANTINE'S QUESTIONABLE CHRISTIANITY.
and that a white garment, with twenty pieces of gold, had been promised by the emperor to every convert. The powerful influence of Constantine was not circumscribed by the narrow limits of his life, or of his dominions. The education which he bestowed on his sons and nephews secured to the empire a race of princes, whose faith was still more lively and sincere, as they imbibed in their earliest infancy (not the spirit, but) the form of Christianity. War and commerce had spread the knowledge of the Gospel beyond the confines of the Roman provinces, and the barbarians, who had disdained a humble and proscribed sect, soon learned to esteem a religion which had been so lately embraced by the greatest monarch and the most civilized nation of the globe."*
Such is the account handed down to us by the pen of the historian, of the life and actions of the first of the Christian emperors. But, whatever great and good qualities were possessed by Constantine, he certainly possessed some which were neither great nor good. Even his conversion to Christianity, which he attributed to the miraculous interposition of heaven, will not bear a rigorous scrutiny: it carries with it abundant traces of political stratagem; and his subsequent life was not such as to dissipate all suspicion of his sincerity. His conduct towards Licinius was a tissue of perfidious baseness. After abdicating the imperial throne, he was received by Constantine with singular demonstrations of kindness, and sent by him into Thessaly, with an assurance that he should live unmolested so long as he created no new disturbance : yet the deposed monarch was soon after strangled by his order ! Another foul stain upon his character was his unjust and cruel treatment of his own son Crispus, whom he commanded to be put to death, without allowing the prince an opportunity of clearing himself of an accusation which had been insidiously preferred against him. Of a kindred cast was the cruelty with which he conducted himself towards his nephew, the young Licinius, whom he caused to be killed in the twelfth year of his age. These atrocities have confounded some of his partisans; and, among others, Jerome has pronounced them the effect of “an unheard-of cruelty.” That he favoured the professors of Christianity-took their
* Gibbon's Decline and Fall, &c., ch. xx.
cause under his special protection, and lavished his bounty upon the Clergy, is beyond dispute; but all this he may have done from motives of policy, without having any solid conviction of the truth of Christianity. Constantine was well aware of their increasing number, and of the declining state of Paganism, and he no doubt thought that to profess and protect the former would be the most effectual means of uniting mankind under his government.
As to his conduct in the affair of the Nicene council, it was pregnant with incalculable evils to the cause of genuine Christianity. It laid the foundation of a system of persecution, the complexion of which was altogether new : professed Christians tyrannizing over one another, and inflicting cruelties on each other, which, in process of time, came to exceed any thing they had ever sustained from the heathen. Constantine himself wrote letters enjoining submission to the decrees of the council, and urging, as a reason for it, that “what they had decreed was the will of God; and that the agreement of such a number of holy bishops was by inspiration of the Holy Spirit.” His first letters were mild and gentle, but he was soonspersuaded into severer measures; for, out of his great zeal to extinguish heresy, he issued edicts against all such as his favourite bishops persuaded him were the authors or abettors of it, particularly against the Novatianists, Valentinians, Marcionists, and others, whom, after reproaching with“ being enemies of truth, destructive counsellors,” &c., he deprived of the liberty of meeting for worship, either in public or private places, and gave all their oratories to the orthodox. And with respect to Arius, and the discomfited party, he not only banished the former, but stigmatized the latter with the title of “ Porphyrians,” and commanded that all their books and writings should be committed to the flames, that there might remain to posterity no vestiges of their doctrine ; and, to complete the climax, he enacted that if any person should dare to keep in his possession any book written by Arius, and should not immediately burn it, he should no sooner be convicted of the crime, than he should suffer death. Such were the acts of the last days of Constantine the Great, the deplorable consequences of which, as they respected the profession of Christianity, will form the subject-matter of some succeeding Lectures.
LECTURE X IX.
Preliminary observations, Prophetic intimations of the grand
Apostacy--Influence of the Clergy in maturing it—Genuine Christianity must be regulated by the New Testament--Christ the alone legislator in his churches – National establishments of his religion necessarily Antichristian - Corrupt State of Christianity previous to the times of Constantine- Inquiry into the grounds of an Ecclesiastical Establishment in Britain-Dr. Paley and Mr. Cunningham quoted— Their principles shown to be Antiscriptural and untenable~Christianity allows not the application of force- The true grounds of dissent statedDistinction between genuine and counterfeit Christianity.
At dete hundred on in ye chuma
The elevation of Constantine to the imperial throne-his conversion to Christianity, real or pretended-and his taking the Christians under his patronage and protection, are most important occurrences in the annals of the church, and could not fail to produce an entire revolution in the state of the Christian profession. For three hundred years Christianity had had to encounter the most determined opposition that could be raised against it by the unbelieving Jew and the bigoted heathen-to the former of whom it was a stumbling block, and to the latter foolishness; yet in defiance of every obstacle with which it was assailed, whether from Jew or Gentile, it not only maintained its ground, but continued to gain strength in its progress, by means of its own intrinsic evidence and the over-ruling Providence of its great author. So long as it was the object of persecution to the ruling powers, and those that openly professed it could only