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    PAGAN RESPONSE TO THE CHURCH’S ADVANCES

    While the church was doing everything in its power to court paganism, paganism was preparing for the union. Of course there could not be any union on equal terms. The church had everything to lose and nothing to gain. Although it was primarily the bride of Christ, it, harlot-like, sought the embraces of the world. All the real advances were made by the church; paganism seemed to be meeting Christianity more than half way, but it changed only its form and not in any respect its character. It adopted one supreme deity in place of its hundreds of gods, making the sun the one god, and relegating all the other gods to an inferior position. This made it easy for Christianity and paganism to unite, for Neo-Platonism had infused into the church the idea that the numerous gods of the heathen were divinities subordinate to Christ, and that he did not intend to do away with demon-worship, but only to assign to it its proper place. Accordingly the church was continuing it under the form of martyr-worship, of which Schaff says, in language similar to that which we have already quoted from him:—SOOCC 79.1

    “In the Christian martyr-worship and saint-worship, which now spread with giant strides over the whole Christian world, we cannot possibly mistake the succession of the pagan worship of gods and heroes, with its noisy popular festivities.”—Church History, volume 2, section 74.SOOCC 80.1

    It only needed, therefore, as will readily be seen, that paganism should come to worship one divinity as supreme, to make it possible for the church to unite with it on equal terms. But in this unnatural union the bride did the wooing and the groom took her name. In the marriage between Christianity and paganism, the former gave up its character, and the latter its name. But let Milman tell how paganism yielded to the church’s solicitations:—SOOCC 80.2

    “In no respect is the progress of Christianity more evident and remarkable than in its influence on heathenism itself.... There had been an unperceived and amicable approximation between the two religions. Heathenism, as interpreted by philosophy, almost [and altogether] found favor with some of the more moderate Christian apologists.... The Christians endeavored to enlist the earlier philosophers in their cause; they were scarcely content with asserting that the nobler Grecian philosophy might be designed to prepare the human mind for the reception of Christianity; they were almost inclined to endow these sages with a kind of prophetic foreknowledge of its more mysterious doctrines. ‘I have explained,’ says the Christian in Minucius Felix, ‘the opinions of almost all the philosophers, whose most illustrious glory it is that they have worshiped one god, though under various names; so that one might suppose, either that the Christians of the present day are philosophers, or that the philosophers of old were already Christians.’SOOCC 80.3

    “But these advances on the part of Christianity were more than met by paganism. The heathen religion, which prevailed at least among the more enlightened pagans during this period, and which, differently modified, more fully developed, and, as we shall hereafter find, exalted still more from a philosophy into a religion, Julian endeavored to reinstate as the established faith, was almost as different from that of the older Greeks and Romans, or even that which prevailed at the commencement of the empire, as it was from Christianity. It worshiped in the same temples; it performed, to a certain extent, the same rites; it actually abrogated the local worship of no one of the multitudinous deities of paganism. But over all this, which was the real religion, both in theory and practice, in the older times, had risen a kind of speculative theism, to which the popular worship acknowledged its humble subordination. On the great elementary principle of Christianity, the unity of the supreme God, this approximation had long been silently made. Celsus, in his celebrated controversy with Origen, asserts that this philosophical notion of the Deity is perfectly reconcilable with paganism....SOOCC 81.1

    “From this time, paganism has changed not merely some of its fundamental tenets, but its general character; it has become serious, solemn, devout. In Lucian, unbelief seemed to have reached its height, and as rapidly declined. The witty satirist of polytheism had, no doubt, many admirers; he had no imitators. A reaction has taken place; none of the distinguished statesmen of the third century boldly and ostentatiously, as in the times of the later republic, display their contempt for religion. Epicureanism has lost, if not its partisans, its open advocates. The most eminent writers treat religion with decency, if not with devout respect; no one is ambitious of passing for a despiser of the gods....SOOCC 81.2

    “This was the commencement of that new Platonism which, from this time, exercised a supreme authority, to the extinction of the older forms of Grecian philosophy, and grew up into a dangerous antagonist of Christianity.”—History of Christianity, book 2, chapter 8.SOOCC 82.1

    But this Neo-Platonism did not become a dangerous antagonist to Christianity until it was brought into the bosom of the church, when it drove Christianity entirely out. It was this Neo-Platonism working in paganism to produce a seeming reformation, and in Christianity to produce a real deformation, that formed the basis of the union of the two religions.SOOCC 82.2

    For the heathen desired unity as much as did the Christians. None of the Roman emperors were blind to the disadvantage to the State of having discordant elements within it. With them the State was everything. Those who really persecuted the Christians did so, not out of hatred to them, as men, but because they considered Christianity to be subversive of the best interest of the empire. The persecution, therefore, was simply for political ends—to secure the peace and unity of the State.SOOCC 82.3

    Nevertheless, the church flourished. In times of persecution Christianity prospered; the church prospered and grew, whether there were persecution or not, but mostly, of course, when there was not. And so, in time, the Christians were recognized as a power—as a factor in politics that it would not do to ignore. Only a madman like Galerius was so foolish as to think to produce unity in the empire by the suppression of the Christians. The wiser emperors endeavored to produce unity by a fusion of the two elements, pagan and Christian.SOOCC 82.4

    The first recorded effort is that of Elagabalus. He was a Syrian youth who had been consecrated to the office of high priest in the temple of the sun, at Emesa, and who, from that position, was elevated to the throne of the Empire of Rome, reigning from 218 to 222 A. D. He did not seem, however, to regard his call to the throne as an elevation, for he was even more the high priest of the sun than the emperor of Rome. He valued the power of the throne only as it enabled him to carry on and promote the wild, unbridled worship of the sun. Of his licentiousness, his effeminacy, and his defiance of all decency, it is not necessary to speak. But with it all he was extremely religious; indeed, his excesses were the result of his religion. His one purpose as emperor is thus set forth by Milman:—SOOCC 83.1

    “It was openly asserted, that the worship of the sun, under his name of Elagabalus, was to supersede all other worship. If we may believe the biographies in the Augustan history, a more ambitious scheme of a universal religion had dawned upon the mind of the emperor. The Jewish, the Samaritan, even the Christian, were to be fused and recast into one great system, of which the sun was to be the central object of adoration.”—History of Christianity, book 2, chapter 8.SOOCC 83.2

    This was perfectly in harmony with the teachings of Neo-Platonism, which was just coming into prominence through the influence of Origen. But Elagabalus outraged even the Roman sense of decency, and, besides, the time was not yet ripe for such a fusion. Paganism had not yet become sufficiently monotheistic in form, nor had Neo-Platonism sufficiently deformed Christianity to make the union possible.SOOCC 84.1

    Next after Elagabalus came the Emperor Alexander Severus.SOOCC 84.2

    “From the policy of the court, as well as the pure and amiable character of the successor of Elagabalus, the more offensive parts of this foreign superstition disappeared with their imperial patron. But the old Roman religion was not re-instated in its jealous and unmingled dignity. Alexander Severus had been bred in another school; and the influence which swayed him, during the earlier part at least of his reign, was of a different character from that which had formed the mind of Elagabalus. It was the mother of Elagabalus who, however she might blush with shame at the impurities of her effeminate son, had consecrated him to the service of the deity in Emesa. The mother of Alexander Severus, the able, perhaps crafty and rapacious, Mamm(Digraph)a, had at least held intercourse with the Christians of Syria. She had conversed with the celebrated Origen, and listened to his exhortations, if without conversion, still not without respect.SOOCC 84.3

    “Alexander, though he had neither the religious education, the pontifical character, nor the dissolute manners of his predecessor, was a Syrian, with no hereditary attachment to the Roman form of paganism. He seems to have affected a kind of universalism; he paid decent respect to the gods of the capitol; he held in honor the Egyptian worship, and enlarged the temples of Isis and Serapis. In his own palace, with respectful indifference, he enshrined, as it were, as his household deities, the representatives of the different religions or theophilosophic systems which were prevalent in the Roman Empire,—Orpheus, Abraham, Christ, and Apollonius of Tyana. The first of these represented the wisdom of the Mysteries, the purified nature-worship, which had labored to elevate the popular mythology into a noble and coherent allegorism.... In Apollonius was centered the more modern Theurgy,—the magic which commanded the intermediate spirits between the higher world and the world of man; the more spiritual polytheism which had released the subordinate deities from their human form, and maintained them in constant intercourse with the soul of man. Christianity, in the person of its Founder, even where it did not command authority as a religion, had nevertheless lost the character, under which it had so long and so unjustly labored, of animosity to mankind. Though He was considered but as one of the sages who shared in the homage paid to their beneficent wisdom, the followers of Jesus had now lived down all the bitter hostility which had so generally prevailed against them. The homage of Alexander Severus may be a fair test of the general sentiment of the more intelligent heathen of his time....SOOCC 84.4

    “In the reign of Alexander Severus, at least, commenced the great change in the outward appearance of Christianity. Christian bishops were admitted, even at the court, in a recognized official character; and Christian churches began to rise in different parts of the empire, and to possess endowments in land.”—Id.SOOCC 85.1

    Here we find the two streams beginning to unite. But not all at once did the complete mingling take place. It was not for Alexander Severus to see one universal religion in the Roman Empire. But during the reign of Aurelian (271-275 A. D.) there occurred a circumstances which is very significant as showing the influence of paganism in the church.SOOCC 85.2

    Aurelian was a devoted worshiper of the sun. Even in the midst of a campaign in Syria, when much was at stake, “his principal concern seems directed to the re-establishment of a temple of the sun,” although he was by no means dilatory in war. Returning in triumph to Rome after the victory over Zenobia, “a considerable portion of his oriental spoils was consecrated to the gods of Rome; the capitol, and every other temple, glittered with the offerings of his ostentatious piety; and the temple of the sun alone received above fifteen thousand pounds of gold. This last was a magnificent structure, erected by the emperor on the side of the Quirinal Hill, and dedicated, soon after the triumph, to that deity whom Aurelian adored as the parent of his life and fortunes. His mother had been an inferior priestess in a chapel of the sun; a peculiar devotion to the god of light was a sentiment which the fortunate peasant imbibed in his infancy; and every step of his elevation, every victory of his reign, fortified superstition by gratitude.”—Gibbon, chapter 11, section 43.SOOCC 86.1

    But at the very time when Aurelian was thus exhibiting his devotion to the sun, he was connected with the affairs of the church in the most extraordinary manner. Paul of Samosata had been made bishop of Antioch. He was rich, and lived in princely style. Whether because of his dissolute life, or from envy, charges of heresy had been brought against him, and he had been excommunicated by a synod of bishops. But he enjoyed the special favor of Zenobia, who had made him a civil magistrate, as well as a bishop, and as long as she retained her power, his position was secure.SOOCC 86.2

    “Paul had staked his success upon that of his warlike patroness; and, on the fall of Zenobia, the bishops appealed to Aurelian to expel the rebel against their authority, and the partisan of the Palmyrenes, who had taken arms against the majesty of the empire, from his episcopal dignity at Antioch. Aurelian did not altogether refuse to interfere in this unprecedented cause, but, with laudable impartiality, declined any actual cognizance of the affair, and transferred the sentence from the personal enemies of Paul, the bishops of Syria, to those of Rome and Italy. By their sentence, Paul was degraded from his episcopate.”—Milman’s History of Christianity, book 2, chapter 8.SOOCC 87.1

    In this we see both the influence which Rome had already attained in the affairs of the church, and also the affiliation of the church with the great patron of sun-worship. It shows that the Christianity of the age and paganism were getting to be on very good terms. But the time of complete union was not yet. “Diocletian might seem born to accomplish that revolution which took place so soon after, under the reign of Constantine. The new constitution of the empire might appear to require a reconstruction of the religious system. The emperor, who had not scrupled to accommodate the form of the government without respect to the ancient majesty of Rome, to the present position of affairs; to degrade the capital itself into the rank of a provincial city; and to prepare the way, at least, for the removal of the seat of government to the East,—would have been withheld by no scruples of veneration for ancient rites or ancestral ceremonies, if the establishment of a new religion had appeared to harmonize with his general policy. But his mind was not yet ripe for such a change, nor perhaps his knowledge of Christianity and its profound and unseen influence sufficiently extensive.”—Milman’s History of Christianity, book 2, chapter 9.SOOCC 87.2

    This goes to the very heart of the matter, and mentions the secret of the union which was afterwards consummated. It was State policy. Diocletian had no personal hostility to Christianity; he was rather favorable than otherwise, and there would have been no persecution under his reign if it had not been for his colleagues. That persecution, however,—the last that occurred until the church herself went into the business,—demonstrated the futility of trying to produce unity in the empire by the extinction of Christianity. It was that very persecution that did much toward hastening the union of the church with paganism, under the successor of Diocletian, the crafty and politicSOOCC 88.1

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