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§ 68. Decline of Discipline.
The principal sources are the books of ecclesiastical law and the acts of councils. Comp. the literature at § 67, and at vol. i. § 114.
The union of the church with the state shed, in general, an injurious influence upon the discipline of the church; and that, in two opposite directions.
On the one hand it increased the stringency of discipline and led to a penal code for spiritual offences. The state gave her help to the church, lent the power of law to acts of suspension and excommunication, and accompanied those acts with civil penalties. Hence the innumerable depositions and banishments of bishops during the theological controversies of the Nicene and the following age, especially under the influence of the Byzantine despotism and the religious intolerance and bigotry of the times. Even the penalty of death was decreed, at least against the Priscillianists, though under the protest of nobler divines, who clave to the spiritual character of the church and of her weapons.653653 Comp. § 27, above. Heresy was regarded as the most grievous and unpardonable crime against society, and was treated accordingly by the ruling party, without respect of creed.
But on the other hand discipline became weakened. With the increasing stringency against heretics, firmness against practical errors diminished. Hatred of heresy and laxity of morals, zeal for purity of doctrine and indifference to purity of life, which ought to exclude each other, do really often stand in union. Think of the history of Pharisaism at the time of Christ, of orthodox Lutheranism in its opposition to Spener and the Pietistic movement, and of prelatical Anglicanism in its conflict with Methodism and the evangelical party. Even in the Johannean age this was the case in the church of Ephesus, which prefigured in this respect both the light and shade of the later Eastern church.654654 Rev. ii. 1-7. Comp. my Hist. of the Apostolic Church, p. 429. The earnest, but stiff, mechanical penitential discipline, with its four grades of penance, which had developed itself during the Dioclesian persecution,655655 Comp. vol. i. § 114 (p. 444 sq.). continued in force, it is true, as to the letter, and was repeatedly reaffirmed by the councils of the fourth century. But the great change of circumstances rendered the practical execution of it more and more difficult, by the very multiplication and high position, of those on whom it ought to be enforced. In that mighty revolution under Constantine the church lost her virginity, and allied herself with the mass of heathendom, which had not yet experienced an inward change. Not seldom did the emperors themselves, and other persons of authority, who ought to have led the way with a good example, render themselves, with all their zeal for theoretical orthodoxy, most worthy of suspension and excommunication by their scandalous conduct, while they were surrounded by weak or worldly bishops, who cared more for the favor of their earthly masters, than for the honor of their heavenly Lord and the dignity of the church. Even Eusebius, otherwise one of the better bishops of his time, had no word of rebuke for the gross crimes of Constantine, but only the most extravagant eulogies for his merits.
In the Greek church the discipline gradually decayed, to the great disadvantage of public morality, and every one was allowed to partake of the communion according to his conscience. The bishops alone reserved the right of debarring the vicious from the table of the Lord. The patriarch Nectarius of Constantinople, about 390, abolished the office of penitential priest (presbyter poenitentiarius), who was set over the execution of the penitential discipline. The occasion of this act was furnished by a scandalous occurrence: the violation of a lady of rank in the church by a worthless deacon, when she came to submit herself to public penance. The example of Nectarius was soon followed by the other oriental bishops.656656 Sozomen, vii. 16; Socrates, v. 19. This fact has been employed by the Roman church against the Protestant, in the controversy on the sacrament of penance. Nectarius certainly did abolish the institution of penitential priest, and the public church penance. But for or against private penances no inference can be drawn from the statement of these historians.
Socrates and Sozomen, who inclined to the severity of the Novatians, date the decline of discipline and of the former purity of morals from this act. But the real cause lay further back, in the connection of the church with the temporal power. Had the state been pervaded with the religious earnestness and zeal of Christianity, like the Genevan republic, for example, under the reformation of Calvin, the discipline of the church would have rather gained than lost by the alliance. But the vast Roman state could not so easily and quickly lay aside its heathen traditions and customs; it perpetuated them under Christian names. The great mass of the people received, at best, only John’s baptism of repentance, not Christ’s baptism of the Holy Ghost and of fire.
Yet even under these new conditions the original moral earnestness of the church continued, from time to time, to make itself known. Bishops were not wanting to confront even the emperors, as Nathan stood before David after his fall, in fearless rebuke. Chrysostom rigidly insisted, that the deacon should exclude all unworthy persons from the holy communion, though by his vehement reproof of the immoralities of the imperial court, he brought upon himself at last deposition and exile.” Though a captain,” says he to those who administer the communion, “or a governor, nay, even one adorned with the imperial crown, approach [the table of the Lord] unworthily, prevent him; you have greater authority than he .... Beware lest you excite the Lord to wrath, and give a sword instead of food. And if a new Judas should approach the communion, prevent him. Fear God, not man. If you fear man, he will treat you with scorn; if you fear God, you will appear venerable even to men.”657657 Hom. 82 (al. 83) in Matt., toward the close (in Montfaucon’s edition of Chrys., tom. vii. p. 789 sq.). Comp. his exposition of 1Cor. xi. 27, 28, in Hom. 27 and 28, in 1Corinth. (English translation in the Oxford Library of the Fathers, etc., p. 379 sqq., and 383 sqq.). Synesius excommunicated the worthless governor of Pentapolis, Andronicus, for his cruel oppression of the poor and contempt of the exhortations of the bishop, and the discipline attained the desired effect. The most noted example of church discipline is the encounter between Ambrose and Theodosius I. in Milan about the year 390. The bishop refused the powerful and orthodox emperor the communion, and thrust him back from the threshold of the church, because in a tempest of rage he had caused seven thousand persons in Thessalonica., regardless of rank, sex, or guilt, to be hewn down by his soldiers in horrible cruelty on account of a riot. Eight months afterward Ambrose gave him absolution at his request, after he had submitted to the public penance of the church and promised in future not to execute a death penalty until thirty days after the pronouncing of it, that he might have time to revoke it if necessary, and to exercise mercy.658658 This occurrence is related by Ambrosehimself, in 395, in his funeral discourse on Theodosius (de obitu Theod. c. 34, in the Bened. ed. of his works, tom. ii. p. 1207), in these words: “Deflevit in ecclesia publice peccatum suum, quod ei aliorum fraude obrepserat; gemitu et lacrymis oravit veniam. Quod privati erubescunt, non erubuit imperator, publice agere poenitentiam; neque ullus postea dies fuit quo non illum doleret errorem. Quid, quod praeclaram adeptus victoriam; tamen quia hostes in acie prostrati sunt abstinuit a consortio sacramentorum, donec Domini circa se gratiam filiorum experiretur adventu.” Also by his biographer Paulinus (de vita Ambros. c. 24), by Augustine(De Civit. Dei, v. 26), by the historians Theodoret (v. 17), Sozomen (vii. 25), and Rufinus (xi. 18). Here Ambrose certainly vindicated—though perhaps not without admixture of hierarchical loftiness—the dignity and rights of the church against the state, and the claims of Christian temperance and mercy against gross military power.” Thus,” says a modern historians “did the church prove, in a time of unlimited arbitrary power, the refuge of popular freedom, and saints assume the part of tribunes of the people.”659659 Hase, Church History, § 117 (p. 161, 7th ed.)
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