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Earthdate 2003-06-02

6.  Growing strength of Christianity  by the Rev. T. M. Lindsay, D.D., LL.D.

Such was the paganism which faced Christianity in the fourth century — a marvellous mixture of philosophy and religion, not without grandeur and nobility of thought, feeling keenly the unity of nature, the essential kinship of man with the Divine, and knowing something of the yearning in man's heart for redemption and for communion with God.  It was able to fascinate and enthral many of the keenest intellects and loftiest natures of the time.  It laid hold on Julian.

Christianity was the common opponent of all these cults.  It had entered the field last and seemed easily outstripped in the race.  In its beginning it was but a ripple on the surface of a Galilaean lake.  Now, in the fourth century, it had compelled Imperial recognition and alliance.  In strength and in weakness its claim had been always the same.  It was the one, the only true, the universal religion.

From its beginning it had never lacked at least a few wealthy and cultured adherents, but during the first two centuries the overwhelming majority of its converts had come from the poorer classes — slaves, freedmen, labourers.  It had early drawn upon itself the contempt of society and the hatred of the populace.  It was held to be something inhuman.  Its votaries were “the third race.”  They had all the unsocial vices of the Jews and even worse vices of their own.  Christians had appropriated the epithet flung at them in scorn.  They were “the third race,” a peculiar people, separate from the rest of mankind, a natio by themselves.

The last decade of the second century witnessed the beginnings of a change.  Men of all ranks and classes became converts — members of the Senatorial and Equestrian Orders, distinguished pleaders, physicians, officers in the army, officials in the civil service, judges, even governors of provinces.  Their wives, sisters and daughters accompanied or more frequently preceded them.  Then the tone of society began to change, gradually and insensibly.  Scorn and contempt gave place to feelings of toleration.  Before the end of the third century no one gave credit to the old scandalous reproaches which had been flung at the followers of Jesus, even when an Emperor tried to revive them.  Statesmen were compelled to consider the movement — not now because it affected a town or a province, but as something pervading the Empire.  They found that it possessed two characteristics which were enormous sources of strength — a peculiar power of assimilation and a compact organisation.

From the first Christianity had proclaimed that the whole life of man belonged to it.  This meant that everything that made man's life wider, deeper, fuller; whatever made it more joyous or contented; whatever sharpened the brain, strengthened and taught the muscles, gave full play to man's energies, could be taken up into and become part of the Christian life.  Sin and foulness were sternly excluded; but, that done, there was no element of the Graeco-Roman civilisation which could not be appropriated by Christianity.  So it assimilated Hellenism or the fine flower and fruit of Greek thought and feeling; it appropriated Roman law and institutions; it made its own the simple festivals of the common people.  All were theirs; and they were Christ's; and Christ was God's.

Then the Christian churches were compactly organised.  Their polity had been a natural growth.  Its power of assimilation had enabled Christianity to absorb what was best in Roman civil and temple organisation, to exclude the worst elements of the bureaucracy, and to preserve much democratic popular life.  Its local rulers belonged to the people they at once ruled and served.  No over-centralisation crushed the local and provincial life.  Christian societies formed themselves into groups, more or less compact, and made use of the synod to effect the grouping.  One common life throbbed through the network of synods.  The feeling of brotherhood did not exhaust itself in sentiment.  If one part were attacked all the others were swift to help.  Nothing within the Empire save the army could compare with the compact organisation of the Christian Church.

In the middle of the third century the Emperor and the Empire learnt to dread this organised force within their midst.  The despised “third race” had become indeed a natio within the Empire.  The first impulse was to exterminate what seemed to be a source of danger.  One well-organised universal persecution followed another.  From each Christianity emerged with sadly diminished numbers (for the lapsed were always a larger body than the martyrs), but with spirit unbroken and with organisation intact and usually strengthened.

Constantine himself had watched the last, the most prolonged and relentless of all — that under Diocletian and his successors — and had marked its failure.  From his entrance into public life he made it plain that, while his rivals clung to the method of repression, he had completely abandoned it.  Christianity won toleration and then Imperial patronage.



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