Editor’s note: The following comprises the second chapter of Defenders of the Faith: The Christian Apologists of the Second and Third Centuries, by the Rev. Frederick Watson. M.A. (published 1879).
Epochs of the Struggle
In the last chapter a description was given of the enemies against which the early Christians had to fight. This chapter is intended to describe, in a series of separate pictures, various epochs in the struggle.
A few men and women are assembled in an upper room in a house at Jerusalem. The number of their names is about one hundred and twenty. Their Lord and Master has just been taken up from them into heaven. He has left them His charge, and it is this: “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.”
According to the instructions given, they are tarrying in the city of Jerusalem for the promise of the Father of which Jesus had told them. They continue in prayer and supplication, and they are waiting for the signal to go forth and conquer the world.
The time of waiting is over, and the day of work and conflict has begun. The Day of Pentecost is running its course. The promise has been fulfilled, “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” The Church fights its first battle, and wins its first victory. “The same day there are added unto them about three thousand souls.”
Now comes a time when the struggle widens and deepens.
At first the battle-ground is Jerusalem, and the Church’s chief enemy the Jews. Then persecution disperses Christ’s soldiers into many different countries. Unlike the armies of the World, dispersion increases the power of the army of the Cross. One single soldier of Christ is able to seize and hold a position for his Lord. Still hatred and opposition follow them wherever they go. The Jews will not believe, and stir up the Gentiles. The Gentiles complain that these men are turning the world upside down. Men can no longer ignore the infant Church. To the period of insignificance succeeds one of ever-increasing hatred.
Forty years pass away. The testimony of the Jews now is, “This sect is everywhere spoken against.” And as for the Gentiles, the Emperor Nero, having set fire to Rome, wants a scapegoat on which to lay his own crimes, and he finds the Christians ready to his hand. Now comes the first great sowing of the seed-blood of the Christians. They are crucified. They are sewn up in the skins of wild beasts and thrown to the dogs. Their garments are smeared with pitch, and they are set on fire to light up the public gardens. The people think they suffer unjustly; they believe them to be guiltless of the crime ascribed to them; but after all they are guilty of hatred of the human race, and they are odious for their crimes.
Still as yet the Roman Government hardly deems the Christians worthy of its notice, and has, certainly, not the remotest conception what they are aiming at. A jealous tyrant, Domitian, is on the throne, and he hears the Christians are setting up a kingdom. He inquires who is to be the king. He is told about David and David’s throne, and about Christ the son of David. Then he seizes the grandsons of Judas, called the brother of our Lord; he thinks they must be David’s heirs and Christ’s heirs. They are brought before him to be examined. They are simple, rude men, not the sort of stuff out of which conspirators or pretenders to thrones are made. He finds they have a little farm which they cultivate with their own hands. They have the strong bodies and the hard hands of tillers of the soil. He asks them about the kingdom they are setting up, and finds that it is spiritual and angelic, and that it will appear at the end of the world. When he hears this he is too contemptuous to make a reply; he sends them away as fools beneath his jealousy or his notice.
A very few years later, and the Church, working secretly, has so prospered as to excite the attention of the Roman governor of Bithynia. He finds the temples deserted. He is told few now buy victims for the sacrifices. The “contagious superstition” (that is his name for Christianity) is not confined to the cities only, it has spread to the villages. Many of all ranks and ages, and of both sexes, are infected. Persecution involves so many that he feels himself obliged to refer the matter to the Emperor. Although the measures he adopts have some success, the crime extends even during the persecution, and seems likely to extend still further.
A little later still, and the martyr Justin says that, wide as is the dispersion of the Jews, wider still is the dispersion of the Gospel of Christ. “There is not one single race of men, whether Barbarians or Greeks, or whatever they may be called, whether nomads or vagrants, or herdsmen living in tents, amongst whom prayers and giving of thanks are not offered through the name of the crucified Jesus.”
Do you think the Christians spread because nobody opposed them? Look at this picture, painted by those who were engaged in the conflict. It is to be found in a letter which begins thus: “The servants of Christ dwelling in Vienne and Lyons of Gaul to our brethren of Asia and Phrygia, who have the same faith and hope of redemption with us. Peace, grace, and glory be to you from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.”
This is their account —
“The greatness, indeed, of the tribulation, and the extent of the madness exhibited by the heathen against the saints, and the sufferings which the blessed martyrs endured, we are not able fully to declare, nor is it indeed possible to describe them. For the adversary assailed us with his whole strength, giving us already a foretaste how unbridled his future movements among us would be. And indeed he re sorted to every means to accustom and exercise his own servants against those of God, so that we should not only be excluded from houses, and baths, and markets, but everything belonging to us was prohibited from appearing in any place whatever. But the grace of God contended for us, and rescued the weak, and prepared those who, like firm pillars, were able, through patience, to sustain the whole weight of the enemy’s violence against him. These came to close quarters with them, enduring every species of reproach and torture. Making light of grievous trial, till they hastened to Christ, showing in reality that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us.” And first, they nobly sustained all the evils that were heaped upon them by the populace, clamours and blows, plunderings and robberies, and whatsoever a savage mob delight to inflict upon its enemies. After this they were led to the forum; and when they had been interrogated by the tribune and the authorities of the city in the presence of the multitude, they were shut up in prison until the arrival of the governor.”
This, be it remembered, is but the beginning of the persecution — the prelude of infinitely worse things. But it is quite enough to convince us that the Christians had to face most violent opposition, and patiently to endure the bitterest trials.
What is the result? Tertullian says, thirty years after, “The more we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of the Christians is seed.” And again — “We are but of yesterday, and have filled every place among you; we leave nothing to you but the temples of your gods.” Christ’s kingdom has already extended further than any kingdom of the world. Solomon, he observes, reigned only from Beersheba to Dan. Darius had not power over all nations. The Egyptians alone acknowledged the rule of Pharaoh. Nebuchadnezzar and Alexander had boundaries to their kingdoms. The Germans are enclosed within their territory. The sea shuts in the Britons. The Moors are kept in bounds by the Romans. The Romans cannot extend their empire amongst the Barbarians. “But Christ’s name is extended everywhere, and believed everywhere, and worshipped by all these nations. Everywhere He reigns, everywhere He is adored, everywhere He is imparted equally to all.”
Fifty years later, and after a long period of rest to the Church, the Roman State determines that it will put the Christians down. It has, meanwhile, gone so far at times as to show a benevolent neutrality towards them, though more often it has been hostile. One emperor has tacitly acknowledged that the Christians ought to be allowed to exist, and has decided that a piece of ground would be more fitly occupied by a Christian church than by a pastry-cook’s shop. Mostly, the emperors have moderated the rigour of the laws and the fury of the people. But now the State awakes to the fact that the contest with Christianity is a matter of life and death — that if it does not put the Christians down, they will put it down. So the first systematic effort to suppress Christianity is made. Every citizen has, on a given day, to appear before the magistrates and offer sacrifices to the gods. It seems as if the Christian army would hardly have won this battle had it not been relieved. During the time of peace many soldiers, fit only for peace, had been added to the ranks.
Alexandria and Carthage are the chief battle-fields of which we have a record. In Alexandria popular disturbances precede the imperial edict. A prophet appears who incites the people to do their gods service by slaying the Christians. Aged men and women are torn in pieces. Houses are plundered. No Christian dare show his face in the streets. The decree is promulgated; on a certain day all Christians are publicly to offer sacrifice to the heathen gods. Then the hearts of the faithful fail them, and it is feared that, if possible, even the elect will stumble. A wide spread apostasy follows. To some their conspicuous position, to others their office in the State, was the stumbling-block. Fear overcame the constancy of some; friends over-persuaded others. The day appointed by the decree arrived. The roll-call was made. Some came up pale and trembling, amidst the jeers of the bystanders, afraid either to sacrifice or die. Others, more bold in their apostasy, denied they had ever been Christians. Some fled away. Others endured imprisonment and even torture for a while, and then apostatized. And there was a faithful remnant, firm and blessed pillars of the Lord, strengthened by Him, and receiving from Him strength proportioned to their mighty faith, who be came marvellous witnesses of His kingdom.
At Carthage the state of things was very similar. There were many different kinds of apostates. Those who sacrificed; those who, by fraud and the connivance of the magistrate, obtained, without sacrificing, a certificate (libellum) that they had; those who said they had sacrificed and had got a certificate, having none; and those who allowed others to lie for them. There were those, also, thanks be to God, who endured to the end.
For the elects’ sake, whom He had chosen, God shortened these days. Had it not been so, it seems as if the hopes of the enemy would have been realized, and Christianity been crushed. Tidings out of the East and the North troubled Decius, and soon he came to his end. The persecution did not outlast him long, and ten years afterwards Christianity was, for the first time, acknowledged to be a lawful religion of the Roman State.
One last bitter conflict with the powers of the State; and then, in a certain sense, the kingdoms of the world became the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ.
On February 22nd, 303, the storm, long hovering, burst. The Emperor Diocletian is over-persuaded by his colleague Galerius to crush that imperium in imperio — the Christian Church. The cathedral church of Nicomedia is broken open, and its Bibles and office-books are burnt; the building is first ransacked, and then hewn to the ground. The next day an imperial edict appears. All churches are to be levelled to the ground — all sacred books are to be burnt. Christian officials are to lose their places and all their civil rights — private Christians are to become slaves.
Then comes a time when, throughout the Empire, Bibles are burnt, churches are destroyed, and the prisons are full of priests; a time when Christian men are tortured with incredible horrors, and Christian women are sent to the brothels, and vile blasphemies are forged and circulated against the name of Christ. “The men bore fire, sword, and crucifixions, savage beasts, and the depths of the sea, the maiming of limbs, and searing with red-hot irons, pricking and digging out the eyes, and mutilation of the whole body, moreover, hunger, and mines, and prisons. And in all they exhibited a brave endurance for the sake of religion, rather than transfer that veneration and worship which are due to God only, to idols. The women also, no less than the men, were strengthened by the doctrine of the Divine Word; so that some endured the same trials as the men, and bore away the same prizes of excellence. Some, when forced away, yielded up their lives rather than submit to the violation of their bodies.”
Then was the boast made that the Christian name was destroyed, and the worship of the gods restored. Then did the heathen rejoice in bounteous harvests, and settled peace, and a healthy air, and a calm sea, and a serene sky; all visible tokens, as they thought, that the gods were once more propitious to an empire at length separated from pollution and impiety.
The boasting was idle, and the gleam of prosperity delusive. Famine, pestilence, and war desolated the Empire at once. The only alleviation to these troubles was the conduct of the Christians. They only, in these distressing circumstances, exhibited sympathy and humanity. By them the famishing were fed, and the dead were buried. The fact was cried abroad, and men glorified the Christians’ God. The Emperor, so lately the blasphemer of Christ and of Christians, completely changed his policy, and said persecution was a mistake he had never intended, and he granted full freedom of worship, and ordered the churches to be rebuilt, and the confiscated property to be restored.
Nevertheless, the historian tells us, vengeance from God quickly overtook him. Whilst his army was over thrown in the battle-field, he perished miserably at home. And in his dying agony he confessed that he suffered justly for his wanton excesses against the Christians.
Now for our last scene. The persecutors are dead. The Roman Empire has owned itself vanquished. On the banners of the army — once idolatrous signs — is to be seen the sign of Christ. Under the banner of the Cross the Romans now go forth to victory. The Emperor rebuilds and beautifies Christian churches, and he causes copies of the Scriptures to be made. He commands all the people of the East to honour the Christian religion, and to worship the one true God, whose power endureth for ever.
Then troubles inside the Christian Church arise. Constantine, the Emperor, is greatly distressed. He knows his own inability to mend matters, and he determines to summon a meeting of those who can, viz., the bishops of the Church. So, at the command of the Emperor, in conveyances provided by him, the most eminent of the ministers of God in all the Churches which had filled Europe, Africa, and Asia, were gathered together.
One single building contained, by representation, the Syrians and the Cilicians, the Phoenicians and the Arabians, the Palestinians, the Egyptians, the Thebans, the Libyans, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia. Persia had its representative, nor was a Scythian lacking. Pontus and Galatia, Pamphylia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Phrygia, supplied the most distinguished representatives of all. Besides these there met together there, Thracians and Macedonians, Achaeans and Epirots, and those who lived at a greater distance still. Spain sent Hosius, Bishop and Confessor. Rome sent two priests to represent her aged bishop. The three other Apostolic thrones, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria, were represented by their bishops in person. Of bishops the total number was 318, and of attendant priests, and deacons, and acolytes, the number was beyond count. It was indeed a distinguished and august assembly, such as the world had never seen. Some of them, says Eusebius, were eminent for their wisdom; some for the austerity of their life and patient endurance of persecution; and some for their modesty. Some were venerable for their age; and some rejoiced in the vigour of their youth. As another historian puts it, “Some were richly endowed with apostolical gifts, and many bore in their bodies the marks of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Into that assembly, summoned, conveyed, and supported by himself, the Emperor Constantine enters. He leaves his heathen attendants at the door. All rise to receive him, but he waits permission to take his seat. When he has taken his place, all present take theirs. Then he tells them his desire. It is to promote the unity of the Church. He reckons disunion therein to be an evil more terrible and more grievous than any kind of war. He trusts they will banish all causes of dissension, so as to accomplish a work most agreeable to God, and thus cause him, their fellow-servant, infinite joy. Then he leaves them to accomplish unimpeded a task in which he has no share.
And thus we see Christ has conquered. Kings have begun to bow down before Him; all nations have begun to do Him service. The Roman Empire has succumbed before the power of the Christian Church. Not, indeed, that the work of Christ’s Church is accomplished; far from it. Her victory is far more apparent than real. But she has won her position in the world. Henceforward the Church and the State will be no longer open enemies. Nay, the State will take the Church under its protection, and the edicts of emperors will enforce the decisions of bishops. But the victories which statecraft and state-power will gain will not be so pure and holy, not so real and lasting, as those which were won by the Divine power of the Truth. The State has gained an outward garb of Christianity, but the Church has now a source of corruption within. She has not, in times gone by, feared those who killed the body. She will have, in years to come, to fear evils which kill the soul, and which destroy her life.
In this book we have nothing to do with these later times. We have to do with a period when the Church won her victories against the State, and not by the aid of the State. Never, as it seems, was there a time when the Church’s triumphs could be more fairly ascribed to the unassisted truth. The Christians of the second and third centuries had not seen Christ or His Apostles, and yet they believed, and spread their belief far and wide. They had not, commonly at any rate, the power of working miracles on the bodies of men, and yet they worked a miraculous change on their souls. All the powers of the world were arrayed against them, and this was the victory which overcame it — even their Faith.
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