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Morality, as never separated from piety, and as uniformly based on loving faith in the Redeemer, and as upheld, fostered and watched over by the church-communion, appears in its inner phase as essentially love to God, and to Christ and to his disciples as brethren, and in its outer phase as a strict rejection of heathen customs, which latter feature, both in consequence of the persecutions suffered and because of the deep corruption of the extra-Christian world, assumes the form not unfrequently of a painfully-anxious self-seclusion from the same; and when, with the victory of Christianity over heathenism, from the time of Constantine on, worldliness pressed into the church itself, then, as a natural counterpoise against this worldliness, world-renunciation was made to apply, among the more pious-minded Christians, even to the sensuously-worldly phase of the Christian life, and was intensified, in the hermit-life, even to morbidness; and in consequence of the distinction which gradually sprang up in the church itself out of this antithesis in the Christian life, namely, between the moral commands, 181on the one hand, and the evangelical counsels on the other (which latter were thought to condition a superior degree of holiness), the moral consciousness was essentially beclouded.
The moral views of the early Church are at once distinguishable from those of later Judaism by their profound grasping into the pious heart as the living fountain of a true and free morality, and from those of heathenism by the purity and rigor of the fundamental principles involved; and the unavoidable militant resistance against the demoralized heathen world naturally enough heightened this rigor to a degree which, but for this, seems no longer required. The essential difference of the Christian moral law from that of the Old Testament is fully recognized as early as from the time of Barnabas (Ep. c. 19). The rigorous element shows itself especially in respect to all sensuous pleasure and all worldly diversion, to marriage, to temporal possessions, and to political power, and to whatever is in any manner implicated with heathenism. In contrast to heathen laxity, the ancient Christians were all the more anxiously watchful against all dominion of sensuous desire, esteeming fasting very highly, though not as a commanded duty, and eschewing the demoralizing and religion-periling influence of the heathen stage and of other amusements; and the severity of their sufferings under the hatred of the world naturally enough made all worldly pleasure appear as in diametrical antagonism to Christian-mindedness. In a well-grounded persuasion of the dangers involved, the Christians declined to accept official positions in the heathen State. Chasteness even in thought was rigorously insisted upon; marriage was held more sacred than had ever been done before, and the sensuous element of the same was guarded within strict limits; and in view of the troubles of the times, and of the expectation of a near second-coming of Christ (which pretty generally prevailed in the first two centuries), very many inclined to a preference of celibacy, without, however, regarding it as a specially-meritorious course of conduct; second marriages, however, were generally viewed as an infidelity to the first consort. Riches were 182mostly looked on as of questionable desirableness; the taking of interest was regarded (in. harmony with the Old Testament view) as not permissible; beneficence and generosity to the brethren on a wide-reaching scale, was held as one of the most essential virtues; fidelity to truth, especially in confessing the faith, even in the face of threatening death, was a sacred duty, and its faithful fulfillment was the Christian’s brightest testimony before his heathen persecutors. The oath was generally regarded as not allowable. Tender love toward each other, and a noble love of enemies, were the Christian’s honor. The moral and warmly-fraternal community-life of the believers was a matter of astonishment even to the passionate enemies of Christianity. Slavery was at once essentially done away with by being transformed into a fraternally-affectionate service-relation; and when the State and laws became Christian, it was also greatly mitigated legally.
Notwithstanding the rigor of the moral view of the Christians, it nevertheless differs essentially from that of the Stoics, because of its fundamental character of joyous faith and love; it is in no respect a harsh, stiff or dismal, but, on the contrary, a thoroughly vigorous, youthful and joyous self-sacrificing life, in the full enjoyment of inner peace and of a conscious blessedness. These features were measurably lost only when the Christian Church itself ceased to be the pure moral antithesis of the un-Christian world, and when, having become a State-Church, it admitted into itself even worldly, and in so far, also, heathen elements. And it was now an essentially correct consciousness which inspired the more pious of the believers with a disinclination to the life and pursuits of the great mass of Christians, and drove them into separating themselves from them. The error, however, was this, that instead of separating the unpious from the Church itself, they chose the separation, within the Church, of the pious from communion with the mass of the Church, and thereby rendered the exclusion of the immoral from the Church more impracticable than ever,—in other words, that, instead of morally purifying the natural elements that inhered both in themselves and in the society, they despisingly withdrew the spiritual from all contact with the natural.183
The first theoretical as well as practical separation of the ascetes (as imitated from the distinction, prevalent in the heathen world, between philosophers and the unphilosophical multitude, and as extending even to their costume), who thought by extreme world-renunciation to attain to an especially high moral perfection, and, as consequent thereon, also the distinguishing of a general Christian morality from a higher (and in some sense voluntary) ascetic morality, manifests itself in the third century in the currents of Alexandrian thought which had been so largely influenced by heathen philosophy,—as yet but feebly in Clemens Alexandrinus,102102 Strom., p. 775, 825 (Potter). but already very damagingly in Origen.103103 Comm. in Ep. ad Rom., 507 (De la Rue). The victory of Christianity over the heathen state in the fourth century, and the in-rushing both of the great and also of the populace into the Church, occasioned, on the one hand, a progressively growing relaxation of ecclesiastical discipline and a darkening of the moral consciousness in the great masses, and, on the other, in natural antithesis thereto, an increasingly radical exalting of the monastic life, in which the Christian conscience of the multitude found, as it were, an atoning complementing of their own imperfect secularized life. The ordinary requirements made upon the life of the ordinary Christian became less deep-reaching; but all the more rigorous were those made upon the ascetic life—wherein Christian morality was now thought to exist in its highest perfection. The distinguishing of mere ordinary moral duty, as the inferior, from moral perfection, became increasingly more familiar to the general Christian consciousness. The two true elements of Christian morality, namely, the turning away from the sinful world, and the aggressive living and working in and for the same, fell apart into two different channels, which respectively served, for the sum total of moral merit, as complements to each other; the superabundant merit of the sanctity of the ascetes fell to the good of the little-meriting world-Christians. In the sphere of morality a division of labor, so to speak, took place, and, in consequence thereof, there was subsequently developed in the sphere of moral merits a system of labor and traffic so artfully 184organized that it required all the boldly initiatory vigor of the Reformation to bring again to the light of day the plain fundamental principles of evangelical morality. To the present period of the history of Christian ethics belong, however, only the feebler beginnings of this corruption.
The development of monasticism introduced a dualism into Christian morality, in that it proposed for the ascetes a morality essentially different from that of the rest of the Christian world, the latter being based upon the divine command, and the former upon pretended divine counsels; with this error were more or less affected Lactantius, Ambrose, Chrysostom, Jerome, and Augustine. In consequence of this, general Christian morality was degraded to a mere minimum; the truly good was made to be different from the divine command, and this good was considered no longer as the imperative will of God, but only, as it were, a divine wish, the fulfilling of which procures for man a special extraordinary merit, but the non-fulfilling of which awakens no divine displeasure. The more general prevalence of this view involved the overthrow of purely evangelical ethics, and the beginning of the perversion of the moral life of the Church in practical respects. By far the greatest portion even of the dogmatic and ecclesiastical errors of the Romish and Greek Churches has sprung from this very notion of a special sanctity in monasticism,
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