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§ 94. Christian Morality.
The ancient world of classic heathenism, having arrived at the height of its glory, and at the threshold of its decay, had exhausted all the resources of human nature left to itself, and possessed no recuperative force, no regenerative principle. A regeneration of society could only proceed from religion. But the heathen religion had no restraint for vice, no comfort for the poor and oppressed; it was itself the muddy fountain of immorality. God, therefore, who in his infinite mercy desired not the destruction but the salvation of the race, opened in the midst of this hopeless decay of a false religion a pure fountain of holiness, love, and peace, in the only true and universal religion of his Son Jesus Christ.
In the cheerless waste of pagan corruption the small and despised band of Christians was an oasis fresh with life and hope. It was the salt of the earth, and the light of the world. Poor in this world’s goods, it bore the imperishable treasures of’ the kingdom of heaven. Meek and lowly in heart, it was destined, according to the promise of the Lord without a stroke of the sword, to inherit the earth. In submission it conquered; by suffering and death it won the crown of life.
The superiority of the principles of Christian ethics over the heathen standards of morality even under its most favorable forms is universally admitted. The superiority of the example of Christ over all the heathen sages is likewise admitted. The power of that peerless example was and is now as great as the power of his teaching. It is reflected in every age and every type of purity and goodness. But every period, while it shares in the common virtues and graces, has its peculiar moral physiognomy. The ante-Nicene age excelled in unworldliness, in the heroic endurance of suffering and persecution, in the contempt of death, and the hope of resurrection, in the strong sense of community, and in active benevolence.
Christianity, indeed, does not come "with observation." Its deepest workings are silent and inward. The operations of divine grace commonly shun the notice of the historian, and await their revelation on the great day of account, when all that is secret shall be made known. Who can measure the depth and breadth of all those blessed experiences of forgiveness, peace, gratitude, trust in God, love for God and love for man, humility and meekness, patience and resignation, which have bloomed as vernal flowers on the soil of the renewed heart since the first Christian Pentecost? Who can tell the number and the fervor of Christian prayers and intercessions which have gone up from lonely chambers, caves, deserts, and martyrs’ graves in the silent night and the open day, for friends and foes, for all classes of mankind, even for cruel persecutors, to the throne of the exalted Saviour? But where this Christian life has taken root in the depths of the soul it must show itself in the outward conduct, and exert an elevating influence on every calling and sphere of action. The Christian morality surpassed all that the noblest philosophers of heathendom had ever taught or labored for as the highest aim of man. The masterly picture of it in the anonymous Epistle to Diognetus is no mere fancy sketch, but a faithful copy from real life.600600 See § 2, p. 9. sq.00
When the apologists indignantly repel the heathen calumnies, and confidently point to the unfeigned piety, the brotherly love, the love for enemies, the purity and chastity, the faithfulness and integrity, the patience and gentleness, of the confessors of the name of Jesus, they speak from daily experience and personal observation. "We, who once served lust," could Justin Martyr say without exaggeration, "now find our delight only in pure morals; we, who once followed sorcery, have now consecrated ourselves to the eternal good God; we, who once loved gain above all, now give up what we have for the common use, and share with every needy one; we, who once hated and killed each other; we, who would have no common hearth with foreigners for difference of customs, now, since the appearance of Christ, live with them, pray for our enemies, seek to convince those who hate us without cause, that they may regulate their life according to the glorious teaching of Christ, and receive from the all-ruling God the same blessings with ourselves." Tertullian could boast that he knew no Christians who suffered by the hand of the executioner, except for their religion. Minutius Felix tells the heathens601601 Octavius, cap. 35.01: "You prohibit adultery by law, and practise it in secret; you punish wickedness only in the overt act; we look upon it as criminal even in thought. You dread the inspection of others; we stand in awe of nothing but our own consciences as becomes Christians. And finally your prisons are overflowing with criminals; but they are all heathens, not a Christian is there, unless he be an apostate." Even Pliny informed Trajan, that the Christians, whom he questioned on the rack respecting the character of their religion, had bound themselves by an oath never to commit theft, robbery, nor adultery, nor to break their word and this, too at a time when the sins of fraud, uncleanness and lasciviousness of every form abounded all around. Another heathen, Lucian, bears testimony to their benevolence and charity for their brethren in distress, while he attempts to ridicule this virtue as foolish weakness in an age of unbounded selfishness.
The humble and painful condition of the church under civil oppression made hypocrisy more rare than in times of peace, and favored the development of the heroic virtues. The Christians delighted to regard themselves as soldiers of Christ, enlisted under the victorious standard of the cross against sin, the world, and the devil. The baptismal vow was their oath of perpetual allegiance;602602 Sacramentum militiae Christianae02 the Apostles’ creed their parole;603603 Symbolum, or, tessera militaris.03 the sign of the cross upon the forehead, their mark of service;604604 Character militaris, stigma militare,04 temperance, courage, and faithfulness unto death, their cardinal virtues; the blessedness of heaven, their promised reward. "No soldier," exclaims Tertullian to the Confessors, "goes with his sports or from his bed-chamber to the battle; but from the camp, where he hardens and accustoms himself to every inconvenience. Even in peace warriors learn to bear labor and fatigue, going through all military exercises, that neither soul nor body may flag .... Ye wage a good warfare, in which the living God is the judge of the combat, the Holy Spirit the leader, eternal glory the prize." To this may be added the eloquent passage of Minutius Felix605605 . Octavius, cap. 3705: "How fair a spectacle in the sight of God is a Christian entering the lists with affliction, and with noble firmness combating menaces and tortures, or with a disdainful smile marching to death through the clamors of the people, and the insults of the executioners; when he bravely maintains his liberty against kings and princes, and submits to God, whose servant he is; when, like a conqueror, he triumphs over the judge that condemns him. For he certainly is victorious who obtains what he fights for. He fights under the eye of God, and is crowned with length of days. You have exalted some of your stoical sufferers to the skies; such as Scaevola who, having missed his aim in an attempt to kill the king voluntarily burned the mistaking hand. Yet how many among us have suffered not only the hand, but the whole body to be consumed without a complaint, when their deliverance was in their own power! But why should I compare our elders with your Mutius, or Aquilius, or Regulus, when our very children, our sons and daughters, inspired with patience, despise your racks and wild beasts, and all other instruments of cruelty? Surely nothing but the strongest reasons could persuade people to suffer at this rate; and nothing else but Almighty power could support them under their sufferings."
Yet, on the other hand, the Christian life of the period before Constantine has been often unwarrantably idealized. In a human nature essentially the same, we could but expect the same faults which we found even in the apostolic churches. The Epistles of Cyprian afford incontestable evidence, that, especially in the intervals of repose, an abatement of zeal soon showed itself, and, on the reopening of persecution, the Christian name was dishonored by hosts of apostates. And not seldom did the most prominent virtues, courage in death, and strictness of morals, degenerate into morbid fanaticism and unnatural rigor.
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