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THE FALSE PROPHET OF ARABIA
It has been with much interest, that we have traced the steady progress and subduing power of Christianity throughout the whole of Europe, during the seventh and eighth centuries, though in its Latin or Roman dress. The name of Jesus was spread abroad, and God could use the sweet savour of that name for blessing, in spite of the rigid formularies of Rome, which everywhere surrounded it. But all these conquests of the gospel, through the management of the pope and the influence of his missionaries, became the conquests of the Roman See. How far her spiritual dominion might have extended, and how great her power might have become, had she met with no formidable opposition; it would be impossible to imagine. But God permitted an enemy to arise, who not only arrested the progress of Romanism on all sides, but more than once made the pontiff himself tremble for his safety even in the chair of St. Peter. This was Mahomet, the imposter of Arabia.
The beginning of the seventh century –the time when this remarkable man appeared– was peculiarly favourable for the accomplishment of his great objective. Almost the whole world was mad after idols. The prevailing religion of his birth country was grossly idolatrous. There were 360 idols in the temple of Mecca, which was the precise number of days in the Arab year. Paganism, with its numberless false gods, still covered a large portion of the earth; and even Christianity alas! had become extensively idolatrous both in the Greek and Roman churches. It was at this moment that Mahomet appeared before the world as a stern and austere monotheist. He felt himself called to restore the fundamental doctrine of the divine Unity to its due prominence in the religious belief of mankind. But the very ideas of incarnation, of redemption, of a Redeemer, of relationship and communion with God —the pervading influences of a holy love —have no place in the prophets system. The yawning gulf that separates between God and the sinner is left impassable by the religion of Mahomet. But, before speaking of his system, we will briefly glance at his family and youth.
THE FAMILY AND YOUTH
According to Arabian tradition, he was of the noble family of the Koreish. That tribe, the Koreishite, at the time of Mahomet’s birth (which is generally placed about the year 569) was a kind of hierarchy exercising religious supremacy, and the acknowledged guardians of the Caaba, the sacred stone of Mecca, with its temple. His father died soon after his birth, and his mother when he was very young; so that he was left an orphan and destitute. Other male members of his family having died, the governorship of Mecca, and the keys of the Caaba, passed into the hands of another branch of the family. Little is known of the first twenty-five years of his life, save that he engaged in mercantile pursuits, and was so successful and honourable in his dealings that he received the title of the Amin, or faithful. At the age of twenty-eight he married a widow of his kindred, possessed of great wealth. Twelve years after his marriage —in his fortieth year —the prophet began to listen to the intimations of his future mission. The misfortunes of his family and how to recover its ancient dignity and power may have been at first in his mind. According to a custom, which was common among his countrymen, he withdrew every year to a cave in a mountain, and spent some time in religious solitude. It was in one of these caves, according to his own account, that he received his first communication from heaven, or rather, as we believe, from the dark abyss. He was, however, gradually wrought up to a belief that he was especially called of God to be an instrument for the destruction of idolatry and for the propagation of the true faith. His oracles, which he professed to receive direct from heaven by the angel Gabriel, are preserved in the Koran, and regarded by the faithful as the word of God.
THE RELIGION OF ISLAM
The new religion thus announced was Islam —a word that means submission or resignation to the will of God. His doctrine was summed up in his own aphorism, “There is no God but the true God, and Mahomet is his prophet.” The six main articles in the theoretical faith of Islam were:
Belief in God;
Belief in His angels;
Belief in His scriptures;
Belief in His prophets;
Belief in the resurrection and day of judgment
Belief in predestination
The practical part of the prophet’s creed was equally unobjectionable, according to the prevalent thoughts of religious observance at the time. It embraces four great precepts:
Prayers and purification;
The pilgrimage to Mecca, which was held to be so essential that any one who died without performing it might as well have died a Jew or a Christian.
The only really new and startling article in the religion of Islam was the divine mission of Mahomet as the apostle and prophet of God. But in these fair appearances the craft of Satan is most manifest. Such simple and elementary religious principles would do violence to none, but deceive many. History clearly proves that his opinions changed with his success, and that his violence and intolerance increased with his power, until it became a religion of the sword, of rapine, and of sensuality. “He is a gentle preacher,” says Milman, “until he has unsheathed his sword.” The sword once unsheathed is the remorseless argument. At one time we find the broad principle of Eastern toleration explicitly avowed; diversity of religion is ascribed to the direct ordinance, and all share in the equal favour, of God. But the Koran gradually recasts all these gentler sentences, and assumes the language of insulting superiority or undisguised aversion. But, although the Koran has many points of resemblance both to Judaism and Christianity, it is thought that Mahomet was not acquainted with either the Old or the New Testament —that he rather drew his materials from Talmudical legends, from spurious Gospels, and other heretical writings, mixed with the old traditions of Arabia.
The first converts whom Mahomet gained over to his new religion were among his friends and near relations; but the work of conversion proceeded very slowly. At the end of three years his followers only numbered fourteen. Not content with his progress, he resolved to make a public declaration of his religion. He first called upon his own family to recognise him as a prophet of God; and, having been accepted as the prophet of his family, he then aspired to be the prophet of his tribe. But the Koreishites refused his demands and his pretensions disbelieved, and he and his followers were persecuted.
TRIUMPHANT ENTRY INTO MEDINA
Hitherto he had endeavoured to spread his opinions by persuasion only, but the people were obstinate and superstitious, and threatened the prophet with martyrdom. He was obliged to flee from his native city Mecca, the central spot of the commerce and of the religion of Arabia, and the hoped for centre of his new spiritual empire. He fled to Medina, where he was received as a prince. Some of its most distinguished citizens had embraced his cause; a party had been already formed in his favour. His flight, A.D. 622, is regarded as the great era in the prophet’s life, and as the foundation of the Mahometan chronology. Now that he was possessed of a force, he was charged by a fresh revelation to use it for the propagation of the faith. The character of his heavenly revelations was now changed; they became fierce and sanguinary. His mouth was filled, like the prophets of Ahab, with a lying spirit.
In a few years, after some fighting between the rival cities and the followers of the rival religions, the strength of the prophet so increased, that in 630 he gained possession of Mecca. He cleansed the Caaba of its 360 idols, and erected it into the great sanctuary of Islam. From that time Mecca became the centre of his system; the whole population swore allegiance; all the tribes of Arabia were now under his dominion and in the profession of his religion.
MECCA THE CAPITAL OF ISLAM
Mahomet was now lord of Mecca. The unity of God was proclaimed and his own prophetic mission from the highest pinnacle of the Mosque. The idols were broken to pieces. The old system of idolatry sank before the fear of his arms and the outward simplicity of his new creed. The next important step in the policy of the prophet was to secure the absolute religious unity of all Arabia. By this means the old hereditary feuds of the tribes and races disappeared, and all were turned into one united religious army against the infidels. War was now declared against all forms of unbelief, which was especially a declaration of war against Christendom, and an expressed determination to propagate Mahometanism, by the power of his sword.
Mahomet is now an independent sovereign. Arabia, delivered from idols, embraces the religion of Islam. But, though the prophet is now a temporal prince and a successful warrior, he neglects not the duties of a priest. He constantly led the devotions of his followers, offered up the public prayers, and preached at the weekly festivals on the Fridays. He blasphemously assumed to be a prophet, priest and a king. The mixture, the delusion, is the inspiration of hell; it is like the masterpiece of Satan, issuing forth from the realm of darkness. The fanaticism of his followers was urged on by the inducements of plunder, and the gratification of every evil passion. The appropriation of all female captives was recognised as one of the laws of war, and the reward held out to valour. The maxims inculcated on all the faithful were such as, “One drop of blood shed in the cause of God, or one night spent in arms, is of more avail than two months’ employment in fasting and prayer. Whosoever falls in battle, his sins are forgiven; at the Day of Judgment his wounds shall be resplendent as vermilion and odoriferous as musk: and the loss of his limbs shall be supplied by the wings of angels and cherubim.” The war cry of the intrepid Khaled was, “Fight on, fight on and fear not! Paradise, paradise, is under the shadow of your swords! Hell with its fires is behind him who flies from battle; paradise is open to him who falls in battle.” Thus animated, the Moslem armies were fired with enthusiasm; and, thirsting for the spoils of victory here and a sensual paradise hereafter, they rushed fearlessly into battle.
The foundation of the Arabian empire was now laid. Mahomet summoned, not only the petty potentates of the neighbouring kingdoms, but the two great powers of the more civilised world, the king of Persia and the Emperor of the East, to submit to his religious supremacy. Heraclius is said to have received the communication with respect; but Chosroes, the Persian, contemptuously tore the letter to pieces: the prophet, on hearing of the act, exclaimed, “It is thus that God will tear the kingdom, and reject the supplications of Chosroes.” And so it happened; the kingdom of Persia was reduced in a short time by the Mahometan arms to a few scattered communities. But though the circle of Islam was widening, the centre was passing away. Having followed his eldest son to the grave with tears and sighs, the prophet made his farewell pilgrimage to Mecca, and died in the year 632, in the sixty-fourth year of his age. It would appear that he was untouched by remorse on his deathbed; but the blood he had shed, and the multitudes he had beguiled, would follow him to the judgment-seat.
The evil mission of the false prophet was fulfilled. He had organized the most terrible confederacy a world ever saw. In the short space of ten years he planted in the East a religion, which has taken root so firmly that amid all the revolutions and changes of twelve centuries it still exercises a powerful controlling influence over the minds and consciences of more than a hundred millions of human beings.
THE SUCCESSORS OF MAHOMET
After the death of the prophet, war was declared against mankind by his successors the Caliphs. The chief of these were, Abou Beker, the wise; Omar, the faithful; Ali, the brave; Khaled, the sword of God. These were the oldest companions and relatives of the prophet. In a few months after his death these generals were followed by the swarms of the desert, and overran the plains of Asia. The history of these wars, though deeply affecting the progress of Christianity, lies not within the sphere of our “Short Papers.” But as many nations and multitudes of the Lord’s people were the victims of this fearful scourge, it fairly claims a brief consideration. Many believe that the Saracen locusts were a partial fulfillment of Revelation 9:1 – 12.
The persecuting heathen, such as Chosroes the infidel and defiant king of Persia and the merely nominal professors of Christianity, were alike chastised of God by the successors of Mahomet; but the proud bishops and priests were the especial objects of their vengeance. “Destroy not fruit-tree nor fertile field in your path,” said the Caliphs; “be just, and spare the feelings of the vanquished. Respect all religious persons who live in hermitages or convents, and spare their edifices. But should you meet with a class of unbelievers of a different kind, who go about with shaven crowns and belong to the synagogue of Satan, be sure you cleave their skulls, unless they embrace the true faith or render tribute.” And so the mighty horde moved on with an enthusiasm, which nothing could check. “Syria fell; Persia and Egypt fell; and many other countries yielded to their power.” Many great cities, such as Jerusalem, Bozrah, Antioch, Damascus, Alexandria, Cyrene, and Carthage, fell into their hands. They also invaded India, assailed Europe, overran Spain, and advanced even to the banks of the Loire; but there they were defeated and driven back by Charles Martel in the year 732. We would only further notice their treatment of the vanquished in the case of Jerusalem.
In the year 687 Jerusalem fell into the hands of the Caliph Omar, who built a mosque on the site of the temple. The whole people of that guilty city were degraded into a marked and abject caste by the haughty conqueror. Everywhere they were to honour the Mussulmans, and give place before them. Christianity was subjected to the ignominy of toleration; the cross was no longer to be exhibited on the outside of the churches; the bells were to be silent; the Christians were to bewail their dead in secrecy; the sight of the devout Mussulman was not to be offended by the symbols of Christianity in any way; and his person was to be considered sacred, so that it was a crime in a Christian to strike a Mussulman.
Such was the condition to which the Christian inhabitants of Jerusalem fell at once, and in which they remained undisturbed by any serious aggression of the Christians till the time of the crusades. Nearly the same terms, we may believe, were enforced on all the Christians in Syria. Thus God, in His holy providence, did deal with many nations both in the East and in the West that were thickly peopled with Jews and Christians, and doom millions to a long night of servitude under Mahometanism, which continues, to this day.100100 See Milman’s Latin Christianity vol. 2, 4 - 52; James White’s Eighteen Christian Centuries, p. 143.
MAHOMETANISM AND ROMANISM
Having brought down our history, both civil and ecclesiastical, to the close of the eighth century, we may pause for a moment and reflect on what we have seen, where we are, and what we have to expect. We have watched the growth of the Roman See in the West, and how she gained the summit of her ambition. We have also seen the rise of a great antagonistic power in the East, inferior only in the extent of its religious and social influence to Christianity itself. The first sprang up gradually in the very centre of enlightened Christendom; the latter arose suddenly in an obscure district of a savage desert. But what, it may be asked, is the moral lesson to be drawn from the character and results of these two great powers? Both have been permitted by God, and, if we rightly judge, have been permitted by Him as a divine judgment on Christendom for its apostasy, and on the heathen for their idolatry. On the one hand, the war-cry was raised against all who refused faith or tribute to the creed and to the armies of the Caliphs; on the other hand, a more merciless war-cry was raised against all who refused to believe in the Virgin and the saints, their visions and miracles, their relics and images, according to the intolerant demands of idolatrous Rome. The Eastern churches had been weakened and wasted from the days of Origen by a Platonic philosophy, in the form of a metaphysical theology, which caused continual dissension. In the West, controversy had been greatly avoided: power was the object there. Rome had aspired, for centuries, to the dominion of Christendom —of the world. God judicially dealt both with in the fiery deluge from Arabia; but Mahometanism remains as the mighty scourge of God in the East, and Romanism in the West.
While the Arabs under Abou Beker and Omar were overrunning the Greek countries, and wresting province after province from the empire, the Emperor contented himself by sending out armies to repel them, and remained in his capital for the discussion of theological questions. From the conclusion of his successful wars with Persia, religion had become almost the exclusive object of his solicitude. Two great controversies were at that moment agitating the whole of the Christian world. The first of these, the so-called Monothelite controversy, may be described generally as a revival, under a somewhat different form, of the old Monophysite, or Eutychian, heresy. Under the general name of Monophysites are comprehended the four main branches of separatists from the Eastern Church, namely the Syrian Jacobites, the Copts, the Abyssinians, and the Armenians. The originator of this numerous and powerful Christian community was Eutyches, abbot of a convent of monks at Constantinople in the fifth century. The Monophysites denied the distinction of the two natures in Christ; the Monothelites, on the other hand, denied the distinction of the will, divine, and human, in the blessed Lord. A well-meant but unsuccessful attempt was made by the Emperor Heraclius to reconcile the Monophysites to the Greek Church. But as the sound of controversy is seldom heard among the Eastern sectaries after this period, and as a detailed account of their disputes would possess no interest to our readers, we leave them on the pages of ecclesiastical history.101101 For full details of the different sects, see Marsden’s Dictionary of Christian Churches and Sects, and Gardner’s Faiths of the World.
ICONOCLASM, or the IMAGE-BREAKING storm, claims a fuller consideration. It went to the heart of Christendom as no other controversy had ever done before; and it forms an important epoch in the history of the Roman See. Jezebel now appears in her true colours, and, from this time onward, her evil character is indelibly stamped on the papacy. The popes who then filled the chair of St. Peter openly defended and justified image-worship. This was surely the beginning of the popedom —the maturity of the God dishonouring system. The foundations of popery were laid bare, and it was thus seen that persecution and idolatry were the two pillars on which her arrogant dominion rested.
THE FIRST VISIBLE OBJECT OF CHRISTIAN VENERATION
For more than three hundred years after the first publication of the gospel there is good reason to believe, that neither images nor any other visible objects of religious reverence were admitted into the public service of the churches, or adopted into the exercises of private devotion. Probably Christians had never thought of such a thing before the days of Constantine; and we can only regard it as an early fruit of the union of Church and State. Up till this period the great protest of Christians was against the idolatry of the heathen: for this they suffered unto death. And it is not a little remarkable, that the Empress Helena, Constantine’s mother, was the first to excite the Christian mind to this degrading superstition. She is said, in her zeal for religious places, to have discovered and disinterred the wood of the “true cross.” This was enough for the enemy’s purpose. The predilection of human nature for objects of veneration was kindled; the flame spread rapidly; and the usual consequence —idolatry —followed.
Similar memorials of the Saviour, the Virgin Mary, the inspired Apostles, and the Fathers, were found. The most sacred relics that had been concealed for centuries were now discovered by visions. So great, so successful, was the delusion of the enemy that the whole church fell into a snare. From the age of Constantine till the epoch of the Arab invasion, veneration for images, pictures and relics gradually increased. The reverence for relics was more characteristic of the Western, and that for images of the Eastern churches; but from the time of Gregory the great feeling of the West became more favourable to images. In consequence of the almost total decay of literature, both among the clergy and the laity, the use of images was found to give immense power to the priesthood. Pictures, statues, and visible representations of sacred objects became the readiest mode of conveying instruction, encouraging devotion, and strengthening religious sentiments in the minds of the people. The more intellectual or enlightened of the clergy might endeavour to maintain the distinction between respect for images as a means and not as objects of worship. But the undiscriminating devotion of the vulgar utterly disregards these subtleties. The apologist may draw fine distinctions between images as objects of reverence and as objects of adoration; but there can be no doubt that with ignorant and superstitious minds the use, the reverence, the worship of images, whether in pictures or statues, invariably degenerates into idolatry.
Before the close of the sixth century idolatry was firmly established in the Eastern Church, and during the seventh century it made a gradual and very general progress in the West, where it had previously gained some footing. It became usual to fall down before images, to pray to them, to kiss them, to adorn them with gems and precious metals, to lay the hand on them in swearing, and even to employ them as sponsors at baptism.
LEO ATTEMPTS THE ABOLITION OF IMAGE-WORSHIP ABOUT A.D. 726
The Emperor Leo III, surnamed Isauricus, a prince of great abilities, had the boldness to undertake, in the face of so many difficulties, to purify the church of its detestable idols. As the writings of the unsuccessful party were carefully suppressed or destroyed, history is silent as to the Emperor’s motives: but we are disposed to believe that the new creed and the success of Mahomet greatly influenced Leo. Besides, there was a very general feeling among Christians in the East, that it was the increasing idolatry of the church that had brought down upon them the chastisement of God by the Mahometan invasion. The Christians were constantly hearing from both Jews and Mahometans the odious name of idolaters. The great controversy evidently arose out of these circumstances.
Leo ascended the throne of the East in the year 717, and, after securing the empire against foreign enemies, began to concern himself with the affairs of religion. He vainly thought that he could change and improve the religion of his subjects by his own imperial command. About the year 726 he issued an edict against the stuperstitious use of images —not their destruction. We cannot suppose that the Isaurian was actuated by the fear of the true God in this, but rather that his motives were purely selfish. Being head of the empire and still ostensibly head of the church, he no doubt thought that by his edicts he could accomplish the total and simultaneous abolition of idolatry throughout the empire, and establish an ecclesiastical autocracy. But Leo had greatly overrated his temporal power in spiritual matters. The time was past for imperial edicts to change the religion of the empire. He had yet to learn, to his deep mortification, the disdainful, insolent, haughty pride and power of the pontiff’s, and the religious attachment of the people to their images.
The first edict merely interdicted the worship of images, and commanded them to be removed to such a height that they could not be touched or kissed. But the moment that the impious hand of the Emperor touched the idols, the excitement was immense and universal. The proscription affected all classes: learned and unlearned, priest and peasant, monk and soldier, clergyman and layman, men, women, and even children were involved in this new agitation. The effect of the edict immediately occasioned a civil war both in the East and in the West. The monkish influence was especially strong. They set up a pretender to the throne, armed the multitude, and appeared in an ill-equipped fleet before Constantinople. But the Greek fire discomfited the disorderly assailants; the leaders were taken and put to death. Leo, provoked by the resistance, which his edict had met with, issued a second and more stringent decree. He now commanded the destruction of all images, and the whitewashing of walls on which such things had been painted.
THE SECOND EDICT PUBLISHED
Sweeping as the second edict was, the imperial officers, it is said, went even beyond their orders. The most sacred statues and pictures were everywhere ruthlessly broken, torn to pieces, or publicly committed to the flames under the eyes of the enraged worshippers. “Heedless of danger and death,” says Greenwood, “men, women, and even children, rushed to the defence of objects as dear to them as life itself. They attacked and slew the imperial officers engaged in the work of destruction; the latter, supported by the regular troops, retaliated with equal ferocity; and the streets of the metropolis exhibited such a scene of outrage and slaughter as can only proceed from envenomed religious passions. The leaders of the tumult were for the most part put to death on the spot; the prisons were filled to repletion; and multitudes, after suffering various corporal punishments, were transported to places of penal banishment.”102102 Greenwood’s Cathedra Petri, vol. 3, p. 474.
The populace was now excited to fury; even the presence of the Emperor did not overawe them. An imperial officer had orders to destroy a statue of the Saviour, which stood over the Brazen Gate of the imperial palace, and was known by the name of the Surety. This image was renowned for its miracles, and was held in great veneration by the people. Crowds of women gathered about the palace and eagerly entreated the soldier to spare their favourite. But he mounted the ladder, and with his axe struck the face, which they had so often gazed upon, and which, they thought, benignly looked down upon them. Heaven interfered not, as they expected; but the women seized the ladder, threw down the impious officer, and tore him to pieces. The Emperor sent an armed guard to suppress the tumult; the mob joined the women, and a frightful massacre took place. “The Surety” was taken down, and its place was filled with an inscription in which the Emperor gave vent to his enmity against images.103103 J. C. Robertson, vol. 2, p. 83; Milman, vol. 2, p. 156.
The execution of the imperial orders was everywhere resisted, both in the capital and the provinces; the popular enthusiasm was so great that it could only be quelled by the strongest efforts of the civil and military power. Passions were kindled on both sides, which had their natural issue in the most daring rebellion and the most violent persecution.
THE POPE REJECTS
THE EDICTS OF LEO
The intelligence of the first assault of Leo against the images of Constantinople filled the Italians with grief and indignation; but when the orders arrived to put the fatal decrees in force within the Italian dependencies of the empire, all rose to arms from the greatest to the least. The pope refused to obey orders and defied the Emperor; and all the people swore to live and die in the defence of the pope and the holy images. But the political complication of matters at that moment made it impossible for the Emperor to enforce his edicts in the papal dominions. Gregory addressed the Emperor in the haughtiest strain; the tone of his reply to the imperial manifesto breathes a spirit of the most seditious defiance. The monks, who saw their craft in danger —the superstition to which they owed their riches and influence, preached against the Emperor as an abandoned apostate. He was painted by these slaves of idolatry, as one who combined in him every heresy that had ever polluted the Christian faith and endangered the souls of men. But as exhibiting the true spirit of popery, both in the defence of their darling superstition, idolatry, and in their defiance of temporal power, we will transcribe parts of the original epistles of the second and third Gregory, leaving the reader to examine the portrait.
Pope Gregory II says to the Emperor, “During ten pure and fortunate years, we have tasted the annual comforts of your royal letters, subscribed in purple ink with your own hand, the sacred pledges of your attachment to the orthodox creed of your fathers. How deplorable is the change! How tremendous the scandal! You now accuse the Catholics of idolatry; and, by the accusation, you betray your own impiety and ignorance. To this ignorance we are compelled to adapt the grossness of our style and arguments: the first elements of holy letters are sufficient for your confusion; and, were you to enter a grammar school, and avow yourself the enemy of our worship, the simple and pious children would cast their tablets at your head.”
After this disloyal and offensive salutation, the pope attempts in the usual way the defence of image-worship. He endeavours to prove to Leo the vast difference between Christian images and the idols of antiquity. The latter were the fanciful representation of demons; the former are the genuine likeness of Christ, His mother, and His saints. He then appeals in justification of their worship to the decorations of the Jewish temple; the mercy seat, the cherubim, and the various ornaments made by Bezaleel to the glory of God. The Jewish law, he affirms, forbade only the idols of the Gentiles. He denies that the Catholics worship wood and stone: these are memorials only, intended to awaken pious feelings.
The pope, in speaking of his own edification from beholding the pictures and images in the churches, gives us a passage of great historical interest as showing the usual subjects of these paintings. “The miraculous portrait of Christ sent to Abgarus, king of Edessa; the paintings of the Lord’s miracles; the virgin mother, with the infant Jesus on her breast, surrounded by choirs of angels; the last supper; the raising of Lazarus; the miracles of giving sight to the blind; the curing the paralytic and the leper; the feeding of the multitudes in the desert; the transfiguration; the crucifixion, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Christ; the gift of the Holy Ghost, and the sacrifice of Isaac.” 104104Milman’s Latin Christianity, vol. 2, p. 160.
Gregory enters at length into the common arguments in behalf of images, and reproaches the Emperor with his breach of the most solemn engagements, and then breaks out in a contemptuous tone, such as, “You demand a council: —revoke your edicts, cease to destroy images; a council will not be needed. You assault us, o tyrant, with a carnal and military band: unarmed and naked, we can only implore the Christ, the prince of the heavenly host, that He will send into you a devil for the destruction of your body and the salvation of your soul. You declare, with foolish arrogance, I will dispatch my orders to Rome, I will break in pieces the image of St. Peter; and Gregory, like his predecessor Martin, shall be transported in chains, and in exile, to the foot of the imperial throne. Would to God that I might be permitted to tread in the footsteps of the holy Martin; but may the fate of Constans serve as a warning to the persecutors of the church. But it is our duty to live for the edification and support of the faithful people; nor are we reduced to risk our safety on the event of a combat. Incapable as you are of defending your Roman subjects, the maritime situation of the city may perhaps expose it to your depredations; but we have only to retire to the first fortress of the Lombards, and then you may as well pursue the winds. Are you ignorant that the popes are the bond of union, the mediators of peace between the East and the West? The eyes of the nations are fixed on our humility; and they revere, as a God upon earth, the apostle St. Peter, whose image you threaten to destroy.”
The conclusion of the pope’s letter evidently refers to his new allies beyond the Alps. The Franks had dutifully listened to the papal recommendation of Boniface, the apostle of Germany. Secret negotiations were already begun to secure their assistance. The history and results of these we have, in a previous paper, examined. Hence the pope assured his royal correspondent, that “the remote and interior kingdoms of the West present their homage to Christ and His vicegerent: and we now prepare to visit one of their most powerful monarchs, who desires to receive from our hands the sacrament of baptism. The barbarians have submitted to the yoke of the gospel, while you alone are deaf to the voice of the Shepherd. These pious barbarians are kindled into rage; they thirst to avenge the persecutions of the East. Abandon your rash and fatal enterprise; reflect, tremble, and repent. If you persist, we are innocent of the blood that will be spilt in the contest; may it fall on your head.”105105See Greenwood’s Cathedra Petri, vol. 3.
A LYING SPIRIT IN
THE MOUIH OF POPERY
After carefully reading these ancient epistles, it is impossible to believe that Gregory could have been so ignorant as to state so many things to Leo in favour of image-worship that were positively false: we are more inclined to believe that he knew them to be untrue, but counted on the ignorance of the Emperor. “You say,” continued Gregory, “that we are forbidden to venerate things made by men’s hands. But you are an unlettered person, and ought therefore to have inquired of your learned prelates the true meaning of the commandment. If you had not been obstinately and wilfully ignorant, you would have learned from them that your acts are in direct contradiction to the unanimous testimony of all the fathers and doctors of the church, and in particular repugnant to the authority of the six general councils.” So glaringly false are these statements, that we can only wonder how any one could have had the effrontery to write them as true, especially the highest ecclesiastic in Christendom. But it proves that there has been from the beginning a lying spirit in the mouth of popery, as there was in the prophets of Baal. (1 Kings 22:23) Even Greenwood says, “In none of the general councils does a word about images or image-worship occur. The statement as to the unanimous testimony of the fathers is equally at fault. Excepting in the works of Gregory the Great, I have not met with any mention of the practice of image-worship in the fathers of the first six centuries of the Christian era.”106106Greenwood, vol. 3, p. 476.
But the lying spirit goes on to say, that the visible appearance of Christ in the flesh made such an impression on the minds of the disciples, that “no sooner had they cast their eyes upon Him than they hastened to make portraits of Him, and carried them about with them, exhibiting them to the whole world, that at the sight of them men might be converted from the worship of Satan to the service of Christ, —but so only that they should worship them, not with an absolute adoration, but only with a relative veneration.” In like manner the pope assured Leo, that “pictures and images had been taken of James, the Lord’s brother, of Stephen, and all other saints of note. And so having done, he dispersed them over every part of the earth, to the manifest increase of the gospel cause.”
By a strange perversion or confusion of scriptural facts, the pope compares the Emperor with “the impious Uzziah, who,” he tells him, “sacrilegiously removed the brazen serpent, which Moses had set up, and broke it in pieces.” Here we may give the pope the benefit of ignorance. He was less likely to know his Bible than the six general councils. He seems to have had some confused recollection of the story of Uzziah whom the Lord smote, because he put forth his hand to stay the ark when the oxen stumbled, and of the act of Hezekiah, who broke in pieces the brazen serpent expressly to prevent the people from paying divine homage to it. (1 Chronicles 13:9; 2 Kings 18:4) “Uzziah,” he says, though it was really Hezekiah, —“Uzziah truly was your brother, as self-willed, and, like you, daring to offer violence to the priests of God.” It might now be asked, what would the children of our schools say to the pope who mistook the good king Hezekiah for a wicked king, and his destroying the brazen serpent for an act of impiety? As well might we expect them to throw their tablets at Gregory’s, as at Leo’s head? But enough has been said on this point to show the reader what has been the spirit and character of popery from its very foundation. It has ever been a barefaced, lying, idolatrous system, though countless numbers of God’s saints have been in it during its darkest periods. The saving Name of Jesus has ever been maintained amidst its grossest absurdities and idolatries, and whosoever believes in that Name shall surely be saved. The finger of faith that touches but His garment’s hem, though pressed through a throng of idolaters, opens the everlasting springs of all healing virtue, and the very fountain of disease is immediately dried up. And whatever the press or throng may be, He will look round to see the one that touched Him by faith, and speak peace to the troubled soul. (Mark 5:25 – 34)
CLOSE OF ICONOCLASM
Gregory did not long survive his epistles. In the following year a third pope of the same name succeeded him. Gregory III was also zealous in the cause of images; he laboured to increase the popular veneration for them. In Rome he set the example of image worship on the most splendid scale. A solemn council was convoked, consisting of all the bishops of the Lombard and Byzantine territories in Northern Italy to the number of ninety-three. The assembly was held in the actual presence of the sacred relics of the apostle Peter, and was attended by the whole body of the city clergy, the consuls, and a vast concourse of people; and a decree was framed, unanimously adopted and signed by all present, to the effect that, “if any person should hereafter, in contempt of the ancient and faithful customs of all Christians, and of the apostolic church in particular, stand forth as a destroyer, defamer, or blasphemer of the sacred images of our God and Lord Jesus Christ, and of His mother, the immaculate ever-Virgin Mary, of the blessed apostles, and all other saints, he be excluded from the body and blood of the Lord, and from the communion of the universal church.” 107107Cathedra Petri, vol. 3, p. 480.
Leo, indignant at the pope’s audacity, arrested his messengers, and resolved to fit out a numerous fleet and army to reduce Italy into better subjection. But this Greek Armada encountered a terrible storm in the Adriatic; the fleet was disabled; and Leo was compelled to postpone his designs for enforcing the execution of his edicts against images in the Italian dependencies of the empire. He indemnified himself, however, by confiscating the papal revenues in Sicily, Calabria, and other parts of his dominions, and transferring Greece and Illyricum from the Roman patriarchate to that of Constantinople. But here, with both, the scene closes, but not the contest. Gregory and Leo both died in 741. His son Constantine, whose reign extended to the unusual length of thirty-four years, succeeded the Emperor. Gregory was succeeded by Zachary, a man of great ability, and deeply imbued with the spirit of popery. To the end of his reign, Constantine was unrelenting in his enmity against the worshippers of images. He is blamed for great cruelty towards the monks, but he was no doubt provoked to the last degree by their violent and fanatical behaviour.
IRENE, wife to the son and heir of Constantine, an ambitious, intriguing, haughty princess, seized the government on the death of her feeble husband, in the name of her son, who was only ten years old. She dissembled for a time her designs for the restoration of images. Policy and idolatry took counsel together in her heart. She was jealous, crafty and cruel. Her history is the record of inward hatred and treachery with an outward appearance of courtesy. But we have only to do with the religious part of her reign.
THE SECOND COUNCIL OF NICÆA
Decrees were issued for a council to be held at Nicæa —a city, hallowed by the sittings of the first great council of Christendom —to decide the question of image-worship. The number of ecelesiastics present was about 350. Her chosen men took the lead; everything was, no doubt, pre-arranged. Among the preliminary acts of the council, it was debated to what class of heretics the Iconoclasts were to be ascribed. Tarasius, president of the assembly, asserted that it was worse than the worst heresy, being an absolute denial of Christ. The whole proceedings of the council were characterised by the same condemnatory tone towards the adversaries of image-worship. After assenting to the decrees of the first six councils, and to the anathemas against the heretics denounced therein, they passed —acting, as they declared, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit —the following canon:
“With the venerable and life-giving cross shall be set up the venerable and holy images, whether in colours, in mosaic work, or any other material, within the consecrated churches of God, on the sacred vessels and vestments, on the walls and on tablets, in houses and in highways. The images, that is to say, of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ; of the immaculate mother of God; of the honoured angels; of all saints and holy men —these images shall be treated as holy memorials, worshipped, kissed, only without that peculiar adoration which is reserved for the Invisible, Incomprehensible, God. All who shall violate this, as is asserted, immemorial tradition of the church, and endeavour, forcibly or by craft to remove any image, if ecelesiastics, are to be deposed and excommunicated; if monks or laymen, to be excommunicated.”
The council was not content with this formal and solemn subscription. With one voice they broke out into a long acclamation. “We all believe, we all assert, we all subscribe. This is the faith of the apostles, this is the faith of the church, this is the faith of the orthodox, and this is the faith of the entire world. We who adore the Trinity worship images. Whoever do not the like, anathema upon them! Anathema on all who call images idols! Anathema on all who communicate with those who do not worship images . . .. Everlasting glory to the orthodox Romans, to John of Damascus! To Gregory of Rome, everlasting glory! Everlasting glory to all the preachers of truth!”
HELENA AND IRENE
Thus ended the most critical question that had ever been raised since Christianity became the religion of the Roman world. By the seventh general council idolatry was formally and vehemently established as the worship of the great papal system, and anathemas were denounced against all who should dare to depart from it; hence the merciless persecution of so-called separatists. But it is worthy of note, as according with our view of Jezebel’s character, that a woman was the first mover in the worship of images, and a woman was the restorer of images when they had been cast down. Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, was a blameless and devout woman, but she was used of the enemy to introduce exciting relics and sacred memorials, which changed Christianity from a purely spiritual worship to that paganising form of religion, which grew up with such rapidity in the succeeding centuries. The crafty Irene was again used of Satan to restore and re-establish the worship of images. From that day to this both the Greek and Latin churches have adhered to that form of worship, and maintained the sanctity of their images and pictures.
The political results of the Iconoclastic controversy were equally great and important. Rome now burst the bonds of her connection with the East, separating herself forever from the Byzantine Empire; and Greek Christianity from this time becomes a separate religion, and the empire a separate state. The West, receiving a great accession of power through this revolution, ultimately created its own empire, formed alliances with the Frankish kings, and placed the crown of the Western empire on the head of Charlemagne, as we have already seen.
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