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§ 8. Heathen Polemics. New Objections.
I. Comp. The sources at §§ 4 and 5, especially the writings of Julian The Apostate Κατά Χριστιανῶν, and Libanius, ὑπὲρ τῶν ἱερῶν. Also Pseudo-lucian: Philopatris (of the age of Julian or later, comprised in the works of Lucian). Proclus (412–487): xviii ἐπιχειρήματα κατά χριστιανῶν(preserved in the counter work of Joh. Philoponus: De aeternitate mundi, ed. Venet. 1535). In part also the historical works of Eunapius and Zosimus.
II. Marqu. d’Argens: defense du paganisme par l’emper. Julien en grec et en franc. (collected from fragments in Cyril), avec des dissertat. Berl. 1764, sec. ed. Augmentée, 1767. This singular work gave occasion to two against it by G. Fr. Meier, Halle, 1764, And W. Crichton, Halle, 1765, in which the arguments of Julian were refuted anew. Nath. Lardner, in his learned collection of ancient heathen testimonies for the credibility of the Gospel History, treats also largely of Julian. See his collected works, ed. by Dr. Kippis, Lond. 1838, vol. vii. p. 581–652. Schröckh: vi. 354–385. Neander: iii. 77 sqq. (Engl. transl. of Torrey ii. 84–93).
The internal conflict between heathenism and Christianity presents the same spectacle of dissolution on the one hand and conscious power on the other. And here the Nicene age reaped the fruit of the earlier apologists, who ably and fearlessly defended the truth of the true religion and refuted the errors of idolatry in the midst of persecution.109109 Comp. vol. i. §§ 60-66. The literary opposition to Christianity had already virtually exhausted itself, and was now thrown by the great change of circumstances into apology for heathenism; while what was then apology on the Christian side now became triumphant polemics. The last enemy was the Neo-Platonic philosophy, as taught particularly in the schools of Alexandria and Athens even down to the fifth century. This philosophy, however, as we have before remarked,110110 Comp. § 4 (p. 42), and vol. i. § 61. was no longer the product of pure, fresh heathenism, but an artificial syncretism of elements heathen and Christian, Oriental and Hellenic, speculative and theurgic, evincing only the growing weakness of the old religion and the irresistible power of the new.
Besides the old oft-refuted objections, sundry new ones came forward after the time of Constantine, in some cases the very opposite of the earlier ones, touching not so much the Christianity of the Bible as more or less the state-church system of the Nicene and post-Nicene age, and testifying the intrusion of heathen elements into the church. Formerly simplicity and purity of morals were the great ornament of the Christians over against the prevailing corruption; now it could be justly observed that, as the whole world had crowded into the church, it had let in also all the vices of the world. Against those vices, indeed, the genuine virtues of Christianity proved themselves as vigorous as ever. But the heathen either could not or would not look through the outward appearance and discriminate the wheat from the chaff. Again: the Christians of the first three centuries had confessed their faith at the risk of life, maintained it under sufferings and death, and claimed only toleration; now they had to meet reproach from the heathen minority for hypocrisy, selfishness, ambition, intolerance, and the spirit of persecution against heathens, Jews, and heretics. From being suspected as enemies to the emperor and the empire, they now came to be charged in various ways with servile and fawning submission to the Christian rulers. Formerly known as abhorring every kind of idolatry and all pomp in worship, they now appeared in their growing veneration for martyrs and relics to reproduce and even exceed the ancient worship of heroes.
Finally, even the victory of Christianity was
branded as a reproach. It was held responsible by the latest heathen
historians not only for the frequent public calamities, which had been
already charged upon it under Marcus Aurelius and in the time of Tertullian, but also for the decline and fall of
the once so mighty Roman empire. But this objection, very popular at
the time, is refuted by the simple fact, that the empire in the East,
where Christianity earlier and more completely prevailed, outlived by
nearly ten centuries the western branch. The dissolution of the
west-Roman empire was due rather to its unwieldy extent, the incursion
of barbarians, and the decay of morals, which was hastened by the
introduction of all the vices of conquered nations, and which had
already begun under Augustus, yea, during the glorious period of the
republic; for the republic would have lasted much longer if the
foundations of public and private virtue had not been undermined.111111 Gibbon, too, imputes the fall of the west-Roman
empire not, as unjustly charged by Dr. Kurtz (Handbuch der allg.
Kirchengesch. i. 2, p. 15, 3d ed.), to Christianity, but almost solely
to the pressure of its own weight. Comp. his General Observations on
the Fall of the R. Empire in the West, at the close of ch. xxxviii.,
where he says: “The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable
effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of
decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of
conquest; and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial
supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own
weight. The story of its ruin is simple and obvious; and instead of
inquiring why the Roman empire was destroyed, we should rather
be surprised that it had subsisted so long.” Gibbon then mentions
Christianity also, it is true, or more properly monasticism, which, he
thinks, suppressed with its passive virtues the patriotic and martial
spirit, and so far contributed to the catastrophe; but adds: “If the
decline of the Roman empire was hastened [—he
says not: caused—]by the conversion
of Constantine, his victorious religion broke the violence of
the fall, and mollified the ferocious temper of the conquerors.” This
view is very different from that of Eunapius and Zosimus, with which
Kurtz identifies it. Gibbon in general follows more closely Ammianus
Marcellinus, whom, with all reason, he holds as a historian far
superior to the others.—Lord Byron truthfully
expresses the law of decay to which Rome succumbed, in these words from
“There is the moral of all human tales;
’T is but the same rehearsal of the past:
First freedom, and then glory—when that fails,
Wealth, vice, corruption, barbarism at last.” Taken from a higher point of view, the downfall of Rome was a divine judgment upon the old essentially heathen world, as the destruction of Jerusalem was a judgment upon the Jewish nation for their unbelief. But it was at the same time the inevitable transition to a new creation which Christianity soon began to rear on the ruins of heathendom by the conversion of the barbarian conquerors, and the founding of a higher Christian civilization. This was the best refutation of the last charge of the heathen opponents of the religion of the cross.
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