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§ 13. General Survey.
The persecutions of Christianity during the first three centuries appear like a long tragedy: first, foreboding signs; then a succession of bloody assaults of heathenism upon the religion of the cross; amidst the dark scenes of fiendish hatred and cruelty the bright exhibitions of suffering virtue; now and then a short pause; at last a fearful and desperate struggle of the old pagan empire for life and death, ending in the abiding victory of the Christian religion. Thus this bloody baptism of the church resulted in the birth of a Christian world. It was a repetition and prolongation of the crucifixion, but followed by a resurrection.
Our Lord had predicted this conflict, and prepared His disciples for it. "Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves. They will deliver you up to councils, and in their synagogues they will scourge you; yea and before governors and kings shall ye be brought for My sake, for a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. And brother shall deliver up brother to death, and the father his child: and children shall rise up against parents, and cause them to be put to death. And ye shall be hated of all men for My name’s sake: but he that endureth to the end, the same shall be saved." These, and similar words, as well as the recollection of the crucifixion and resurrection, fortified and cheered many a confessor and martyr in the dungeon and at the stake.
The persecutions proceeded first from the Jews, afterwards from the Gentiles, and continued, with interruptions, for nearly three hundred years. History reports no mightier, longer and deadlier conflict than this war of extermination waged by heathen Rome against defenseless Christianity. It was a most unequal struggle, a struggle of the sword and of the cross; carnal power all on one side, moral power all on the other. It was a struggle for life and death. One or the other of the combatants must succumb. A compromise was impossible. The future of the world’s history depended on the downfall of heathenism and the triumph of Christianity. Behind the scene were the powers of the invisible world, God and the prince of darkness. Justin, Tertullian, and other confessors traced the persecutions to Satan and the demons, though they did not ignore the human and moral aspects; they viewed them also as a punishment for past sins, and a school of Christian virtue. Some denied that martyrdom was an evil, since it only brought Christians the sooner to God and the glory of heaven. As war brings out the heroic qualities of men, so did the persecutions develop the patience, the gentleness, the endurance of the Christians, and prove the world-conquering power of faith.
Number of Persecutions.
From the fifth century it has been customary to reckon ten great persecutions: under Nero, Domitian, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus, Maximinus, Decius, Valerian, Aurelian, and Diocletian.1313 So Augustin, De Civit. Dei, xviii. 52, but he mentions Antoninus for Marcus Aurelius. Lactantius counts six, Sulpitius Severus nine persecutions.2 This number was suggested by the ten plagues of Egypt taken as types (which, however, befell the enemies of Israel, and present a contrast rather than a parallel), and by the ten horns of the Roman beast making war with the Lamb, taken for so many emperors1414 Ex. chs. 5-10; Rev. 17:12 sqq. Augustin felt the impropriety of referring to the Egyptian plagues, and calls this a mere conjecture of the human mind which "sometimes hits the truth and sometimes is deceived." He also rectifies the number by referring to the persecutions before Nero, mentioned in the N. T., and to the persecutions after Diocletian, as that of Julian, and the Arian emperors. "When I think of these and the like things," he says, "it does not seem to me that the number of persecutions with which the church is to be tried can be definitely stated." But the number is too great for the general persecutions, and too small for the provincial and local. Only two imperial persecutions—those, of Decius and Diocletian—extended over the empire; but Christianity was always an illegal religion from Trajan to Constantine, and subject to annoyance and violence everywhere1515 On the relation of Christianity to the laws of the Roman empire, see Aubé, De la legatité du Christianisme dans l’empire Romain au Ier siècle. Paris 1866. Some persecuting emperors—Nero, Domitian, Galerius, were monstrous tyrants, but others—Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, Decius, Diocletian—were among the best and most energetic emperors, and were prompted not so much by hatred of Christianity as by zeal for the maintenance of the laws and the power of the government. On the other hand, some of the most worthless emperors—Commodus, Caracalla, and Heliogabalus—were rather favorable to the Christians from sheer caprice. All were equally ignorant of the true character of the new religion.
The long and bloody war of heathen Rome against the church, which is built upon a rock, utterly failed. It began in Rome under Nero, it ended near Rome at the Milvian bridge, under Constantine. Aiming to exterminate, it purified. It called forth the virtues of Christian heroism, and resulted in the consolidation and triumph of the new religion. The philosophy of persecution is best expressed by the terse word of Tertullian, who lived in the midst of them, but did not see the end: "The blood of the Christians is the seed of the Church."
The blood of persecution is also the seed of civil and religious liberty. All sects, schools, and parties, whether religious or political, when persecuted, complain of injustice and plead for toleration; but few practise it when in power. The reason of this inconsistency lies in the selfishness of human nature, and in mistaken zeal for what it believes to be true and right. Liberty is of very slow, but sure growth.
The ancient world of Greece and Rome generally was based upon the absolutism of the state, which mercilessly trampled under foot the individual rights of men. It is Christianity which taught and acknowledged them.
The Christian apologists first proclaimed, however imperfectly, the principle of freedom of religion, and the sacred rights of conscience. Tertullian, in prophetic anticipation as it were of the modern Protestant theory, boldly tells the heathen that everybody has a natural and inalienable right to worship God according to his conviction, that all compulsion in matters of conscience is contrary to the very nature of religion, and that no form of worship has any value whatever except as far as it is a free voluntary homage of the heart.1616 See the remarkable passageAd Scapulam, c. 2: "Tamen humani juris et naturalis potestatis est unicuique quod putaverit colere, nec alii obest, aut prodest alterius religio. Sed religionis est cogere religionem, quae sponte suscipi debeat non vi, cum et hostiae ab animo libenti expostulentur. Ita etsi nos compuleritis ad sacrificandum, nihil praestabitis diis vestris. Ab invitis enim sacrificia non desiderabunt, nisi si contentiosi sunt; contentiosus autem deus non est." Comp. the similar passage in Tertullian, Apolog. c. 24, where after enumerating the various forms of idolatry which enjoyed free toleration in the empire he continues: "Videte enim ne et hoc ad irreliqiositatis elogium concurrat, adimere libertatem reliqionis et interdicere optionem divinitatis, ut non liceat mihi colere quem velim sed cogar colere quem nolim. Nemo se ab invito coli volet, ne homo quidem."5
Similar views in favor of religious liberty were expressed by Justin Martyr,1717 Apol. I. c. 2, 4, 126 and at the close of our period by Lactantius, who says: "Religion cannot be imposed by force; the matter must be carried on by words rather than by blows, that the will may be affected. Torture and piety are widely different; nor is it possible for truth to be united with violence, or justice with cruelty. Nothing is so much a matter of free will as religion."1818 Instit. div. V. 20.7
The Church, after its triumph over paganism, forgot this lesson, and for many centuries treated all Christian heretics, as well as Jews and Gentiles, just as the old Romans had treated the Christians, without distinction of creed or sect. Every state-church from the times of the Christian emperors of Constantinople to the times of the Russian Czars and the South American Republics, has more or less persecuted the dissenters, in direct violation of the principles and practice of Christ and the apostles, and in carnal misunderstanding of the spiritual nature of the kingdom of heaven.
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