Methods of the Early Christian Church in Dealing With Heathenism

The coincidences of our present conquest of the non-Christian races with that to which the Apostolic Church was called are numerous and striking.  Not even one hundred years ago was the struggle with heathen error so similar to that of the early Church.

To a great extent the missionary efforts of the mediaeval centuries encountered only crude systems, which it was comparatively easy to overcome. The rude tribes of Northern Europe were converted by the Christianity of the later Roman Empire, even though they were conquerors. Their gods of war and brute force did not meet all the demands of life. As a source of hope and comfort, their religion had little to be compared with the Christian faith, and as to philosophy they had none. They had inherited the simple nature worship which was common to all branches of the Aryan race, and they had expanded it into various ramifications of polytheism; but they had not fortified it with subtle speculations like those of the Indo-Aryans, nor had their mythologies become entrenched in inveterate custom, and the national pride which attends an advanced civilization.

At a later day Christian missionaries in Britain found the Norse religion of the Saxons, Jutes, and Angles, scarcely holding the confidence of either rulers or subjects. They had valued their gods chiefly for the purposes of war, and they had not always proved reliable. The king of Northumbria, like Clovis of France, had vowed to exchange his deities for the God of the Christians if victory should be given him on a certain battle-field; and when he had assembled his thanes to listen to a discussion between the missionary Paulinus and the priests of Woden on the comparative merits of their respective faiths, the high priest frankly admitted his dissatisfaction with a religion which he had found utterly disappointing and useless; and when other chief counselors had given the same testimony, and a unanimous vote had been taken to adopt the Christian faith, he was the first to commence the destruction of the idols.[20]

The still earlier missionaries among the Druid Celts of Britain and France, though they found in Druidism a more elaborate faith than that of the Norsemen, encountered no such resistance as we find in the great religious systems of our day. Where can we point to so easy a conquest as that of Patrick in Ireland, or that of the Monks of Iona among the Picts and Scots?

The Druids claimed that they already had many things in common with the Christian doctrines,[21] and what was a still stronger element in the case, they made common cause with the Christians against the wrongs inflicted on both by pagan Rome. The Roman emperors were not more determined to extirpate the hated and, as they thought, dangerous influences of Christianity, than they were to destroy every vestige of Druidism as their only hope of conquering the invincible armies of Boadicea. And thus the mutual experience of common sufferings opened a wide door for the advancement of Christian truth.

The conquests of Welsh and Irish missionaries in Burgundy, Switzerland, and Germany, encountered no elaborate book religions, and no profound philosophies. They had to deal with races of men who were formidable only with weapons of warfare, and who, intent chiefly on conquest and migration, had few institutions and no written historic records. The peaceful scepter of the truth was a new force in their experience, and the sympathetic and self-denying labors of a few missionaries tamed the fierce Vikings to whom Britain had become a prey, and whose incursions even the armies of Charlemagne could not resist.

How different is our struggle with the races now under the scepter of Islam, for example—inflated as they are with the pride of wide conquest, and looking contemptuously upon that Christian faith which it was their early mission to sweep away as a form of idolatry! How different is our task in India, which boasts the antiquity of the noble Sanskrit and its sacred literature, and claims, as the true representative of the Aryan race, to have given to western nations their philosophy, their religion, and their civilization! How much more difficult is our encounter with Confucianism, which claims to have laid the foundations of the most stable structure of social and political institutions that the world has ever known, and which to-day, after twenty-five centuries of trial, appeals to the intellectual pride of all intelligent classes in a great empire of four hundred millions! And finally, how different is our task with Buddhism, so mystical and abstruse, so lofty in many of its precepts, and yet so cold and thin, so flexible and easily adapted, and therefore so varied and many sided! The religious systems with which we are now confronted find their counterparts only in the heathenism with which the early Church had to deal many centuries ago; and for this reason the history of those early struggles is full of practical instruction for us now. How did the early Church succeed in its great conquest? What methods were adopted, and with what measures of success?

In one respect there is a wide difference in the two cases. The Apostles were attempting to convert their conquerors. They belonged to the vanquished race; they were of a despised nationality. The early fathers also were subjects of Pagan powers. Insomuch as the Roman emperors claimed divine honors, there was an element of treason in their propagandism. The terrible persecutions which so long devastated the early Church found their supposed justification in the plea of self-defense against a system which threatened to subvert cherished and time-honored institutions. Candid writers, like Archdeacon Farrar, admit that Christianity did hasten the overthrow of the Roman Empire.

But we find no conquering powers in our pathway. Christianity and Christian civilization have become dominant in the earth. The weakness of the Christian Church in its conquests now is not in being baffled and crippled by tyranny and persecution, but rather in the temptation to arrogance and the abuse of superior power, in the overbearing spirit shown in the diplomacy of Christian nations and the unscrupulous aggressions of their commerce. There is also a further contrast in the fact that in the early days the advantages of frugality and simple habits of life were on the side of the missionaries. Roman society especially was beginning to suffer that decay which is the inevitable consequence of long-continued luxury, while the Church observed temperance in all things and excelled in the virtues which always tend to moral and social victory.[22]

On the other hand, we who are the ambassadors to the heathen of to-day, are ourselves exposed to the dangers which result from wealth and excessive luxury. Our grade of life, our scale of expenditure, even the style in which our missionaries live, excites the amazement of the frugal heathen to whom they preach. And as for the Church at home, it is hardly safe for a Persian or a Chinaman to see it. Everyone who visits this wonderful eldorado carries back such romantic impressions as excite in others, not so much the love of the Gospel as the love of mammon.  When the Church went forth in comparative poverty, and with an intense moral earnestness, to preach righteousness, temperance, and the judgment to come; when those who were wealthy gave all to the poor—like Anthony of Egypt, Jerome, Ambrose, and Francis of Assisi—and in simple garments bore the Gospel to those who were surfeited with luxuries and pleasures, and were sick of a life of mere indulgence, then the truth of the Gospel conquered heathenism with all that the world could give. But whether a Church in the advanced civilization of our land and time, possessed of enormous wealth, enjoying every luxury, and ever anxious to gain more and more of this present world, can convert heathen races who deem themselves more frugal, more temperate, and less worldly than we, is a problem which remains to be solved. We have rare facilities, but we have great drawbacks. God’s grace can overcome even our defects, and He has promised success.

But in the proud intellectual character of the systems encountered respectively by the ancient and by the modern Church, there are remarkable parallels. The supercilious pride of Brahmanism, or the lofty scorn of Mohammedanism, is quite equal to that self-sufficient Greek philosophy in whose eyes the Gospel was the merest foolishness. And the immovable self-righteousness of the Stoics has its counterpart in the Confucianism of the Chinese literati. A careful comparison of the six schools of Hindu philosophy with the various systems of Greece and Rome, will fill the mind with surprise at the numerous correspondences—one might almost say identities. And that surprise is the greater from the fact that no proof exists that either has been borrowed from the other.

The atomic theory of creation advanced by Lucretius is found also in the Nyaya philosophy of the Hindus. The pessimism of Pliny and Marcus Aurelius was much more elaborately worked out by Gautama. The Hindus had their categories and their syllogisms as well as Aristotle. The conception of a dual principle in deity which the early Church traced in all the religious systems of Egypt, Phoenicia, and Assyria, and whose influence poisoned the life of the Phoenician colonies, and was so corrupting to the morals of Greece and Rome, was also elaborated by the Sankhya philosophy of Kapila, and it has plunged Hindu society into as deep a degradation as could be found in Pompeii or Herculaneum.[23] The Indian philosophy partook far more of the pantheistic element than that of Greece. Plato and Aristotle had clearer conceptions of the personality of the deity and of the distinct and responsible character of the human soul than any school of Hindu philosophers—certainly clearer than the Vedantists, and their ethics involved a stronger sense of sin.

German philosophy has borrowed its pantheism from India rather than from Greece, and in its most shadowy developments it has never transcended the ancient Vedantism of Vyasa.

As in the early centuries, so in our time, different systems of religion have been commingled and interwoven into protean forms of error more difficult to understand and dislodge than any one of the faiths and philosophies of which they were combined. As the Alexandrian Jews intertwined the teachings of Judaism and Platonism; as Manichaeans and Gnostics corrupted the truths of the Old and New Testaments with ideas borrowed from Persian mysticism; as various eclectic systems gathered up all types of thought which the wide conquests of the Roman Empire brought together, and mingled them with Christian teachings; so now the increased intercommunication, and the quickened intellectual activity of our age have led to the fusion of different systems, ancient and modern, in a negative and nerveless religion of humanity. We now have in the East not only Indian, but Anglo-Indian, speculations. The unbelieving Calcutta graduate has Hegel and Spinoza interwoven with his Vedantism, and the eclectic leader of the Brahmo Somaj, while placing Christ at the head of the prophets and recognizing the authority of all sacred bibles of the races, called on Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Mohammedans to unite in one theistic church of the New Dispensation in India. Not even the old Gnostics could present so striking an admixture as that of the Arya Somaj. It has appropriated many of those Christian ethics which have been learned from a century of contact with missionaries and other Christian residents. It has approved the more humane customs and reforms of Christendom, denouncing caste, and the degradation of woman. It has repudiated the corrupt rites and the degrading superstitions of Hinduism. At the same time its hatred of the Christian faith is most bitter and intense.

And there are other alliances, not a few, between the East and the West.  In India and Japan the old Buddhism is compounded with American Spiritualism and with modern Evolution, under a new application of the ancient name of Theosophy. In Japan representatives of advanced Unitarianism are exhorting the Japanese Buddhists to build the religion of the future on their old foundations, and to avoid the propagandists of western Christianity.

The bland and easy-going catholicity which professes so much in our day, which embraces all faiths and unfaiths in one sweet emulsion of meaningless negations, which patronizes the Christ and His doctrines, and applies the nomenclature of Christianity to doctrines the very opposite of its teachings, finds a counterpart in the smooth and vapid compromises of the old Gnostics. “Gnosticism,” says Uhlhorn, “combined Greek philosophies, Jewish theology, and ancient Oriental theosophy, thus forming great systems of speculative thought, all with the object of displaying the world’s development. From a pantheistic First Cause, Gnosticism traced the emanation of a series of aeons—beings of Light.  The source of evil was supposed to be matter, which in this material world holds light in captivity. To liberate the light and thus redeem the world, Christ came, and thus Christianity was added as the crowning and victorious element in this many-sided system of speculation. But Christ was regarded not so much as a Savior of individual souls as an emancipator of a disordered cosmos, and the system which seemed to accord great honor to Christianity threatened to destroy its life and power.” So, according to some of our Modern Systems, men are to find their future salvation in the grander future of the race.[24]

Not only do we encounter mixtures of truth and error, but we witness similar attempts to prove that whatever is best in Christianity was borrowed from heathenism. Porphyry and others maintained that Pythagoras and Theosebius had anticipated many of the attributes and deeds of Christ, and Philostratus was prompted by the wife of Severus to write a history of Apollonius of Tyana which should match the life of Christ.  And in precisely the same way it has been variously claimed in our time that the story of Christ’s birth, childhood, and ministry were borrowed from Buddha and from Krishna, and that the whole conception of his vicarious suffering for the good of men is a clever imitation of Prometheus Bound. Now, in the earlier conflict it was important to know the facts on both sides in order to meet these allegations of Porphyry, Marinus, and others, and it is equally important to understand the precise ground on which similar charges are made with equal assurance now.[25] The very same old battles are to be fought over again, both with philosophy and with legend.

And it is very evident that, with so many points of similarity between the early struggle of Christianity with heathenism and that of our own time, it is quite worth our labor to inquire what were the general methods then pursued. Then victory crowned the efforts of the Church.  That which humanly speaking seemed impossible, was actually accomplished. From our finite standpoint, no more preposterous command was ever given than that which Christ gave to his little company of disciples gathered in the mountains of Galilee, or that last word before his ascension on Mt. Olivet, in which He placed under their responsible stewardship, not only Jerusalem, but all Judea and Samaria, and the “uttermost parts of the earth.” The disciples were without learning or social influence, or political power. They had no wealth and few facilities, and so far as they knew there were no open doors. They were hated by their Jewish countrymen, ridiculed by the ubiquitous and cultured Greeks, and frowned upon by the conquering powers of Rome. How then did they succeed? How was it that in three or four centuries they had virtually emptied the Roman Pantheon of its heathen deities, and had gained the scepter of the empire and the world?

It is easy to misapprehend the forces which won the victory. The disciples first chosen to found the Church were fishermen, but that affords no warrant for the belief that only untutored men were employed in the early Church, or for the inference that the Salvation Army are to gain the conquest now. They were inspired; these are not; and a few only were chosen, with the very aim of setting at naught the intolerant wisdom of the Pharisees. But when the Gospel was to be borne to heathen races, to the great nations whose arrogance was proportionate to their learning and their power, a very different man was selected. Saul of Tarsus had almost every needed qualification seen from a human point of view. Standing, as he must, between the stiff bigotry of Judaism and the subtleties of Greek philosophy, he was fortunately familiar with both.  He was a man of rare courtesy, and yet of matchless courage. Whether addressing a Jewish governor or the assembled philosophers and counselors of Athens, he evinced an unfailing tact. He knew how to conciliate even a common mob of heathen idolators and when to defy a high priest, or plead the immunities of his Roman citizenship before a Roman proconsul.

In tracing the methods of the early Church in dealing with heathenism, we begin, therefore, with Paul; for although he was differentiated from all modern parallels by the fact that he was inspired and endowed with miraculous power, yet that does not invalidate the force of those general principles of action which he illustrated. He was the first and greatest of all missionaries, and through all time it will be safe and profitable to study his characteristics and his methods. He showed the value of thorough training in his own faith, and of a full understanding of all the errors he was to contend with. He could reason with Jews out of their own Scriptures, or substantiate his position with Greeks by citing their own poets. He was certainly uncompromising in maintaining the sovereignty of the one God, Jehovah, but he was not afraid to admit that in their blind way the heathen were also groping after the same supreme Father of all. The unknown God at Athens he accepted as an adumbration of Him whom he proclaimed, and every candid reader must admit that in quoting the words of Aratus, which represent Zeus as the supreme creator whose offspring we are, he conveys the impression of a real resemblance, if not a partial and obscured identity.

The essential principle here is that Paul frankly acknowledged whatever glimpses of truth he found in heathen systems, and made free use of them in presenting the fuller and clearer knowledge revealed in the Gospel.  No man ever presented a more terrible arraignment of heathenism than that which he makes in the first chapter of his epistle to the Romans, and yet, with marvelous discrimination he proceeds, in the second chapter, to show how much of truth God has imparted to the understandings and the consciences of all men. And he seems to imply the Holy Spirit’s regenerative work through Christ’s atonement, when he maintains that whoever shall, “by patient continuance in well doing, seek glory and immortality,” to him shall “eternal life” be given; but “tribulation and anguish upon every soul of man that doeth evil, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile.” Peter was not prepared to be a missionary till he had been divested of his Jewish narrowness by witnessing the power of grace in the Roman centurion at Caesarea. That widened out his horizon immensely. He saw that God in his ultimate plan was no respecter of persons or of races.

There has been great difference of opinion as to whether the annual worship of the supreme God of Heaven in the great imperial temple at Peking is in any degree a relic of the worship of the true God once revealed to mankind. Such Chinese scholars as Martin and Legge and Douglass think that it is; others deny it. Some men raise a question whether the Allah of the Mohammedan faith is identical with the Jehovah of the Old Testament. Sales, the profoundest expositor of Islam, considers him the same. Moslems themselves have no doubt of it: the intent of the Koran is that and nothing else; Old Testament teachings are interwoven with almost every sura of its pages. I think that Paul would have conceded this point at once, and would the more successfully have urged the claims of Jesus, whom the Koran presents as the only sinless prophet. Of course Mohammedans do not recognize the Triune God as we now apprehend Him, from the New Testament standpoint; neither did ancient believers of Israel fully conceive of God as He has since been more fully revealed in the person and the sacrifice of his Son—Jesus Christ.

Both the teachings and the example of Paul seem to recognize the fact that conceptions of God, sometimes clear and sometimes dim, may exist among heathen nations; and many of the great Christian fathers evidently took the same view. They admitted that Plato’s noble teachings were calculated to draw the soul toward God, though they revealed no real access to Him such as is found in Christ. Archbishop Trench, in his Hulsean lectures on “Christ the Desire of the Nations,” dwells approvingly upon Augustine’s well-known statement, that he had been turned from vice to an inspiring conception of God by reading the “Hortensius” of Cicero. Augustine’s own reference to the fact is found in the fourth book of his “Confessions,” where he says: “In the ordinary course of study I fell upon a certain book of Cicero whose speech almost all admire—not so his heart. This book contains an exhortation to philosophy, and is called ‘Hortensius.’ But this book altered my affections and turned my prayers to Thyself, O Lord, and made me have other purposes and desires. Every vain hope at once became worthless to me, and I longed with an incredible burning desire for an immortality of wisdom, and began now to arise that I might return to Thee. For not to sharpen my tongue did I employ that book: nor did it infuse into me its style, but its matter.”

The “Hortensius” of Cicero has not survived till our time, and we know not what it contained; but we cannot fail to notice this testimony of a mature and eminent saint to the spiritual benefit which he had received at the age of thirty-one, from reading the works of a heathen philosopher. And a most interesting proof is here furnished for the freedom with which the Spirit of God works upon the hearts of men, and the great variety of means and agencies which He employs,--and that beyond the pale of the Christian Church, and even beyond the actual knowledge of the historic Christ. It would be interesting to know whether the regeneration of Augustine occurred just then, when he says in such strong language, that this book altered his affections and turned his prayers unto God, and made him “long with an indescribable burning desire for an immortality of wisdom.” All men are saved, if at all, by the blood of Christ through the renewing of the Holy Ghost; but what was the position of such men as Augustine and Cornelius of Caesarea before they fully and clearly saw Jesus as the actual Messiah, and as the personal representative of that Grace of God in which they had already reposed a general faith, is at least an interesting question.

Not less positive is the acknowledgment which Augustine makes of the benefits which he had received from Plato. And he mentions many others, as Virgininus, Lactantius, Hilary, and Cyprian, who, like himself, having once been heathen and students of heathen philosophy, had, as he expresses it, “spoiled the Egyptians, bringing away with them rich treasures from the land of bondage, that they might adorn therewith the true tabernacle of the Christian faith.” Augustine seems to have been fond of repeating both this argument and this his favorite illustration.  In his “Doctrine of Christ” he expands it more fully than in his “Confessions.” He says: “Whatever those called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, may have said conformable to our faith, is not only not to be dreaded, but is to be claimed from them as unlawful possessors, to our use. For, as the Egyptians not only had idols and heavy burdens which the people of Israel were to abhor and avoid, but also vessels and ornaments of gold and silver and apparel which that people at its departure from Egypt privily assumed for a better use, not on its own authority but at the command of God, the very Egyptians unwittingly furnishing the things which themselves used not well; so all the teaching of the Gentiles not only hath feigned and superstitious devices, and heavy burdens of a useless toil, which we severally, as under the leading of Christ we go forth out of the fellowship of the Gentiles, ought to abhor and avoid, but it also containeth liberal arts, fitter for the service of truth, and some most useful moral precepts; as also there are found among them some truths concerning the worship of the One God Himself, as it were their gold and silver which they did not themselves form, but drew from certain veins of Divine Providence running throughout, and which they perversely and wrongfully abuse to the service of demons. These, the Christian, when he severs himself from their wretched fellowship, ought to take from them for the right use of preaching of the Gospel. For what else have many excellent members of our faith done? See we not how richly laden with gold and silver and apparel that most persuasive teacher and most blessed martyr, Cyprian, departed out of Egypt? Or Lactantius, or Victorinus, Optatus, Hilary, not to speak of the living, and Greeks innumerable? And this, Moses himself, that most faithful servant of God, first did, of whom it is written, that ‘he was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians.’”

Let us for a moment pause and see of what these treasures of Egypt consisted, and especially what Plato taught concerning God. Like Socrates, he ridiculed the absurd but popular notion that the gods could be full of human imperfections, could make war upon each other, could engage in intrigues, and be guilty of base passions. And he earnestly maintained that it was demoralizing to children and youth to hold up such beings as objects of worship. Such was his condemnation of what he considered false gods. He was equally opposed to the idea that there is no God. “All things,” he says, “are from God, and not from some spontaneous and unintelligent cause.” “Now, that which is created,” he adds, “must of necessity be created by some cause—but how can we find out the Father and maker of all this universe? If the world indeed be fair, and the artificer good, then He must have looked to that which is external—for the world is the fairest of creatures, as He is the best of causes.”

Plato’s representation of the mercy of God, of his providential care, of his unmixed goodness, of his eternal beauty and holiness—are well-nigh up to the New Testament standard. So is also his doctrine of the immortality of the soul. The fatal deficiency is that he does not know. He has received no divine revelation. “We will wait,” he said in another passage, “for one, be it a god or a god-inspired man, to teach us our religious duties, and as Athene in Homer says to Diomede, to take away the darkness from our eyes.” And in still another place he adds:

“We must lay hold of the best human opinion in order that, borne by it as on a raft, we may sail over the dangerous sea of life, unless we can find a stronger boat, or some word of God which will more surely and safely carry us.”[26]

There is a deep pathos in the question which I have just quoted, “How can we find out the Father and maker of all this universe?” And in the last sentence quoted, Plato seems to have felt his way to the very threshold of the revelation of Christ.[27]

Augustine shows a discrimination on this subject too important to be overlooked, when he declares that while the noble philosophy of the Platonists turned his thoughts away from his low gratifications to the contemplation of an infinite God, it left him helpless. He was profited both by what philosophy taught him and by what it could not teach: it created wants which it could not satisfy. In short, he was prepared by its very deficiencies to see in stronger contrast the all-satisfying fullness of the Gospel of Eternal Life. Plato could tell him nothing of any real plan of redemption, and he confesses with tender pathos that he found no Revealer, no divine sacrifice for sin, no uplifted Cross, no gift of the transforming Spirit, no invitation to the weary, no light of the Resurrection.[28] Now, just here is the exact truth; and Augustine has conferred a lasting benefit upon the Christian Church by this grand lesson of just discrimination. He and other Christian fathers knew where to draw the lines carefully and wisely with respect to heathen errors.

We often have occasion to complain of the sharpness of the controversies of the early Church, but it could scarcely be otherwise in an age like that. It was a period of transitions and of rude convulsions. The foundations of the great deep of human error were being broken up. It was no time for flabby, jelly-fish convictions. The training which the great leaders had received in philosophy and rhetoric had made them keen dialectics. They had something of Paul’s abhorrence of heathen abominations, for they saw them on every hand. They saw also the specious admixtures of Gnosticism, and they met them squarely.  Tertullian’s controversy with Marcion, Augustine’s sharp issue with Pelasgius, Ambrose’s bold and uncompromising resistance to Arianism, Origen’s able reply to Celsus, all show that the great leaders of the Church were not men of weak opinions. The discriminating concessions which they made, therefore, were not born of an easy-going indifferentism and the soft and nerveless charity that regards all religions alike. They found a medium between this pretentious extreme and the opposite evil of ignorant and narrow prejudgment; and nothing is more needed in the missionary work of our day than that intelligent and well-poised wisdom which considers all the facts and then draws just distinctions; which will not compensate for conscious ignorance with cheap misrepresentation or wholesale denunciation.

1. Now, first of all, in considering the methods of the early Church and its secret of power in overcoming the errors of heathenism, it must be borne in mind that the victory was mainly due to the moral earnestness which characterized that period. In this category we must place the influence which sprang from the martyrdom of thousands who surrendered life rather than relinquish their faith. That this martyr spirit did not always produce a true symmetry of Christian character cannot be denied.  The tide of fanaticism swept in, sometimes, with the current of true religious zeal, and inconsistencies and blemishes marred even the saintliest self-sacrifice; but there was no resisting the mighty logic of the spirit of martyrdom as a whole. The high and the low, the wise and the unlettered, the rich and the poor, the old and the young, strong men and delicate women, surrendered themselves to the most cruel tortures for the love of Christ. This spectacle, while it may have served only to enrage a Nero and urge him on to even more Satanic cruelty, could not be wholly lost upon the more thoughtful Marcus Aurelius and others like him. It was impossible to resist the moral force of so calm and resolute a surrender unto torture and death.  Moreover, an age which produced such relinquishment of earthly possessions as was shown by men like Anthony and Ambrose, who were ready to lay down the emoluments of high political position and distribute their large fortunes for the relief of the poor; and such women as Paula and others of high position, who were ready to sacrifice all for Christ and retire into seclusion and voluntary poverty—an age which could produce such characters and could show their steady perseverance unto the end, could not fail to be an age of resistless moral power; and it would be safe to say that no heathen system could long stand against the sustained and persistent force of such influences. Were the Christian Church of to-day moved by even a tithe of that high self-renunciation, to say nothing of braving the fires of martyrdom, if it possessed in even partial degree the same sacrifice of luxury and ease, and the same consecration of effort and of influence, the conquest of benighted nations would be easy and rapid.

The frugality of the early Christians, the simplicity of life which the great body of the Church observed, and to which even wealthy converts more or less conformed, was also, doubtless, a strong factor in the great problem of winning the heathen to Christ. Probably in no age could Christian simplicity find stronger contrasts than were presented by the luxury and extravagance, the unbridled indulgence and profligacy, which characterized the later periods of the Roman Empire. Universal conquest of surrounding nations had brought untold wealth. The Government had hastened the process of decay by lavish distribution to the people of those resources which obviated the necessity of unremitting toil. It had devoted large expenditures to popular amusements, and demagogues had squandered the public funds for the purpose of securing their own preferment. Over against the moral earnestness of the persecuted Christian Church, there was in the nation itself and the heathenism which belonged to it, an utter want of character or conviction. These conditions of the conquest, as I have already indicated, do not find an exact counterpart with us now. There is more of refined Christian culture than existed in the early Church; probably there is also more of organized Christian effort. In many points the comparison is in our favor, but earnestness, and the spiritual power which attends it, are on a lower grade. There is no escape from the conviction that just here lies the reason why the Christian Church, with all her numbers, her vast material resources, and her unlimited opportunities, cannot achieve a greater success.

2. But, on the intellectual side, and as relating to the methods of direct effort, there are many points in which imitation of the early example is entirely practicable. And first, the wise discrimination which was exercised by Augustine and other Christian leaders is entirely practicable now. There has prevailed in our time an indiscriminate carelessness in the use of terms in dealing with this subject. The strong language which the Old Testament employed against the abominations of Baalism, we have seemed to regard as having equal force against the ethics of Confucius or Gautama. “Heathenism” is the one brand which we have put upon all the non-Christian religions. I wish it were possible to exchange the term for a better.[29] Baalism was undoubtedly the most besotted, cruel, and diabolical religion that has ever existed on the earth. When we carefully study it we are not surprised at the strong language of denunciation which the Old Testament employs. But as I have already shown, we find in the New Testament a different spirit exercised toward the types of error which our Savior and his disciples were called to meet. There is only gentleness in our Lord’s dealings with those who were without the Jewish Church. His strongest denunciations were reserved for hypocrites who knew the truth and obeyed it not. He declared that the men of Nineveh would rise up in judgment against those who rejected the clear message of God’s own Son.  The man who goes forth to the great mission fields with the feeling that it is his province to assail as strongly as possible the deeply-rooted convictions of men, instead of winning them to a more excellent way, is worse than one who beats the air; he is doing positive harm; he is trifling with precious souls. He does not illustrate the spirit of Christ.

The wisest of the early Fathers sometimes differed widely from each other in their methods; some were denunciatory, others were even too ready to excuse. The great African controversialist, Tertullian, was unsparing in his anathemas, not only against heathen customs, which were vile indeed, but against the teachings of the noblest philosophy. He had witnessed the former; he had not candidly studied the latter. With a blind zeal, which has too often been witnessed in the history of good causes, he denounced Plato, Aristotle, and even Socrates with a violence which marred the character of so great a man. On the other hand, Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria were perhaps excessively broad. Of two noted Alexandrines, Archdeacon Farrar says: “They were philosophers in spirit; they could enforce respect by their learning and their large, rounded sympathy, where rhetorical denunciation and ecclesiastical anathemas would only have been listened to with a frown of anger, or a look of disdain. Pagan youths would have listened to Clement when he spoke of Plato as ‘the truly noble and half-inspired,’ while they would have looked on Tertullian as an ignorant railer, who could say nothing better of Socrates than to call him the ‘Attic buffoon,’ and of Aristotle than to characterize him as the ‘miserable Aristotle.’”

Tatian and Hermes also looked upon Greek philosophy as an invention of the devil. Irenaeus was more discriminating. He opposed the broad and lax charity of the Alexandrines, but he read the Greek philosophy, and when called to the bishopric of Lyons, he set himself to the study of the Gallic Druidism, believing that a special adaptation would be called for in that remote mission field.[30] Basil was an earnest advocate of the Greek philosophy as giving a broader character to Christian education.

There were among the Fathers many different types of men, some philosophically inclined, others better able to use practical arguments.  Some were more successful in appealing to the signs of the times, the clear evidences of that corruption and decay to which heathenism had led. They pointed to the degradation of women, the prevalence of vice, the inordinate indulgence in pleasures, the love of excitement, the cruel frenzy of the gladiatorial shows, the unrest and pessimism and despair of all society. One of the most remarkable appeals of this kind is found in a letter of Cyprian to his friend Donatus. “He bids him seat himself in fancy on some mountain top and gaze down upon what he has abandoned (for he is a Christian), on the roads blocked by brigands, the sea beset by pirates, the camps desolated by the horrors of many wars, on the world reeking with bloodshed, and the guilt which, in proportion to its magnitude, was extolled as a glory. Then, if he would turn his gaze to the cities, he would behold a sight more gloomy than all solitudes. In the gladiatorial games men were fattened for mutual slaughter, and publicly murdered to delight the mob. Even innocent men were urged to fight in public with wild beasts, while their mothers and sisters paid large sums to witness the spectacle. In the theatres parricide and infanticide were dealt with before mixed audiences, and all pollution and crimes were made to claim reverence because presented under the guise of religious mythology. In the homes was equal corruption; in the forum bribery and intrigue ran rife; justice was subverted, and innocence was condemned to prison, torture, and death.  Luxury destroyed character, and wealth became an idol and a curse.”[31] Arguments of this kind were ready enough to hand whenever Christian teachers were disposed to use them, and their descriptions found a real corroboration in society as it actually appeared on every hand. None could question the counts in the indictment.

3. While the Christian Fathers and the missionaries differed in their estimates of heathenism, and in their methods of dealing with it, one thing was recognized by all whom we designate as the great leaders, namely, the imperative necessity of a thorough knowledge of it. They understood both the low superstition of the masses and the loftier teaching of the philosophers. On the other hand, they had the same estimate of the incomparable Gospel of Christ that we have; they realized that it was the wisdom of God and the power of God unto salvation as clearly as the best of us, but they did not claim that it was to be preached blindly and without adaptation. The verities of the New Testament teachings, the transforming power of the Holy Ghost, the necessity for a new birth and for the preternatural influence of grace, both in regeneration and in sanctification, were as strongly maintained as they have ever been in any age of the Church; but the Fathers were careful to know whether they were casting the good seed upon stony places, or into good ground where it would spring up and bear fruit. The liberal education of that day was, in fact, an education along the old lines of heathen philosophy, poetry, history, and rhetoric; and a broad training was valued as highly as it has been in any subsequent period.  It was thoroughly understood that disciplined intellect, other things being equal, may expect a degree of influence which can never fall to the lot of ignorance, however sanctified its spirit. There has never been a stronger type of men than the Christian Fathers. They were learned men, for the age in which they lived, and their learning had special adaptations to the work assigned them. Many of them, like Cyprian, Clement, Hilary, Martin of Tours, had been born and educated in heathenism; while others, like Basil, Gregory, Origen, Athanasius, Jerome, and Augustine, though born under Gospel influences, studied heathen philosophy and poetry at the instance of their Christian parents.

4. Some of the leaders familiarized themselves with the speculations of the day, not merely for the sake of a wider range of knowledge, but that they might the more successfully refute the assailants of the faith, many of whom were men of great power. They were fully aware that it behooved them to know their ground, for their opponents studied the points of comparison carefully. The infidel Celsus studied Christianity and its relation to the Old Testament histories and prophecies, and he armed himself with equal assiduity with all the choicest weapons drawn from Greek philosophy. How was such a man to be met? His able attack on Christianity remained fifty years unanswered. To reply adequately was not an easy task. Doubtless there were many, then as now, who thought that the most comfortable way of dealing with such things was to let them alone. But a wiser policy prevailed. Origen was requested to prepare an answer, and, although such work was not congenial to him, he did so because he felt that the cause of the truth demanded it. His reply outlived the attack which it was designed to meet, and in all subsequent ages it has been a bulwark of defense.[32]

Origen was not of a pugnacious spirit—it was well that he was not—but with wide and thorough preparation he summoned all his energies to meet the foe. Archdeacon Farrar says of him, that he had been trained in the whole circle of science. He could argue with the pupils of Plato, or those of Zeno, on equal terms, and he deems it fortunate that one who was called, as he was, to be a teacher at Alexandria, where men of all nations and all creeds met, had a cosmopolitan training and a cosmopolitan spirit.

No less resolute was the effort of Ambrose in resisting the errors of Arianism, and he also adapted himself to the work in hand. He had not been afraid of Platonism. On the other hand, we are told that Plato, next to his Bible, constituted a part of his daily reading, and that, too, in the period of his ripest Christian experience, and when he carried his studies and his prayers far into the hours of the night. But in dealing with Arianism he needed a special understanding of all its intricacies, and when among its advocates and supporters he encountered a powerful empress as well as her ablest advocates, he had need of all the powers within him—that power of moral earnestness which had led him to give all his property to the poor—that power of strong faith, which prepared him, if need be, to lay down his life—the power of a disciplined intellect, and a thorough knowledge of the whole issue.

5. The early Fathers not only studied the heathen philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, but they learned to employ them, and their successors continued to employ them, even to the Middle Ages, and the period of the Reformation. As an intellectual framework, under which truth should be presented in logical order, it became a strong resource of the early Christian teachers. Let me refer you on this point to the clear statements of Professor Shedd.[33] He has well said that “when Christianity was revealed in its last and beautiful form by the incarnation of the Eternal World, it found the human mind already occupied by human philosophy. Educated men were Platonists, or Stoics, or Epicureans. During the age of Apologetics, which extended from the end of the apostolic age to the death of Origen, the Church was called to grapple with these systems, to know as far as possible what they contained, and to discriminately treat their contents, rejecting some things, utilizing others.” “We shall see,” he continues, “that Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero exerted more influence than all other philosophic minds united upon the greatest of Christian Fathers, upon the greatest of the School men, and upon the greatest of the theologians of the Reformation, Calvin and Melancthon; and if we look at European philosophy, as it has been unfolded in England, Germany, and France, we can perceive that all the modern philosophic schools have discussed the principles of human reason in very much the same manner in which Plato and Aristotle discussed them twenty-two centuries ago.”

I need hardly say, in closing, that it is not necessary to borrow from the heathen systems of to-day as extensively as the Fathers did from the systems of Greece and Rome, and it would be discordant with good taste to illustrate our sermons with quotations from the Hindu poets as lavishly as good Jeremy Taylor graced his discourses with gems from the poets of Greece. But I think that we may so far heed the wise examples furnished by Church history as to face the false systems of our time with a candid and discriminating spirit, and by a more adequate knowledge to disenchant the bugbears with which their apologists would alarm the Church.

We are entering upon the broadest and most momentous struggle with heathen error that the world has ever witnessed. Again, in this later age, philosophy and multiform speculation are becoming the handmaids of Hindu pantheism and Buddhist occultism, as well as of Christian truth.  The resources of the East and the West are combined and subsidized by the enemy as well as by the Church. As in old Rome and Alexandria, so now in London and Calcutta all currents of human thought flow together, and truth is in full grapple with error. It is no time to be idle or to take refuge in pious ignorance, much less to fear heathen systems as so many haunted houses which superstitious people dare not enter—as if the Gospel were not as potent a talisman now as it was ages ago. Let us fearlessly enter these abodes of darkness, throw open the shutters, and let in the light of day, and the hobgoblins will flee. Let us explore every dark recess, winnow out the miasma and the mildew with the pure air of heaven, and the Sun of Righteousness shall fill the world.



[Footnote 20: The Norsemen, Maclear.]

[Footnote 21: The Druid bard Taliesen says: “Christ, the Word from the beginning, was from the beginning our teacher, and we never lost His teaching. Christianity was a new thing in Asia, but there never was a time when the Druids of Britain held not its doctrines.”--St. Paul in Britain, p. 86.]

[Footnote 22: Uhlhorn’s Conflict of Christianity with Heathenism.]

[Footnote 23: The same dualism of the male and the female principle is found in the Shinto of Japan. See Chamberlain’s translation of the Kojiki.]

[Footnote 24: The late George Eliot has given expression to this grim solace, and Mr. John Fiske, in his Destiny of Man, claims that the goal of all life, from the first development of the primordial cell, is the perfected future man.]

[Footnote 25: Voltaire found great delight in the so-called Ezour Veda, a work which claimed to be an ancient Veda containing the essential truths of the Bible. The distinguished French infidel was humbled, however, when it turned out that the book was the pious fraud of a Jesuit missionary who has hoped thus to win the Hindus to Christianity.]

[Footnote 26: Quoted by Uhlhorn in The Conflict of Christianity with Heathenism, p. 70. He also quotes Seneca as saying: “Oh, if one only might have a guide to truth!”]

[Footnote 27: Plato showed by his writings and his whole life that he was a true seeker after the knowledge of God, whom he identified with the highest good. Though he believed in an efficient creatorship, he held that matter is eternal. Ideas are also eternal, but the world is generated. He was not a Pantheist, as he clearly placed God outside of, or above, the universe. He regarded the soul of man as possessed of reason, moral sensibility, and appetite.

On the doctrine of future immortality Plato was most emphatic.

He also believed that the soul in a previous state had been pure and sinless, but had fallen. He taught that recovery from this fallen condition is to be accomplished by the pursuit of philosophy and the practice of virtue (not as merit but as discipline), by contemplating the highest ideal which is the character of God, and by thinking of eternity. Plato regarded suffering as disciplinary when properly improved. True philosophy may raise the soul above the fear of death.  This was proved by Socrates. Both Socrates and Plato seemed to believe in a good demon (spirit) whose voice was a salutary and beneficent guide. As to eschatology, Plato looked forward to a heaven where the virtuous soul shall dwell in the presence of God, and in the enjoyment of pure delights.

Aristotle’s idea of God was scarcely less exalted than that of Plato. He expressed it thus: “The principle of life is in God; for energy of mind constitutes life, and God is this energy. He, the first mover, imparts motion and pursues the work of creation as something that is loved. His course of life must be similar to what is most excellent in our own short career. But he exists forever in this excellence, whereas this is impossible for us. His pleasure consists in the exercise of his essential energy, and on this account vigilance, wakefulness, and perception are most agreeable to him. Again, the more we examine God’s nature the more wonderful does it appear to us. He is an eternal and most excellent being. He is indivisible, devoid of parts, and having no magnitude, for God imparts motion through infinite time, and nothing finite, as magnitude is, can have an infinite capacity. He is a being devoid of passions and unalterable.”—Quoted in Indian Wisdom, p.  125.]

[Footnote 28: “Those pages present not the image of this piety, the tears of confession, Thy sacrifice, a troubled spirit, a broken and a contrite heart, the salvation of the people, the Bridal city, the earnest of the Holy Ghost, the cup of our redemption. No man sings there, ‘Shall not my soul be submitted unto God? for of Him cometh my salvation, for He is my God and my salvation, my guardian, I shall no more be grieved.’ No one there hears Him call ‘Come unto me all ye that labor.’”--Confessions, Bk. vii., xxi. “But having then read those books of the Platonists, and thence being taught to search for incorporeal truth, I saw Thy invisible things, understood by the things which are made; and though cast back, I perceived what that was which, through the darkness of my mind, I was hindered from contemplating, being assured ‘that Thou wert and wert infinite, and yet not diffused in space, finite or infinite, and that Thou truly art who art the same ever, in no part nor motion varying; and that all other things are from Thee.... Of these things I was assured, yet too insecure to enjoy Thee.  I prated as one skilled, but I had not sought Thy way in Christ our Savior; I had proved to be not skilled but killed.”--Confessions, Bk.  vii., xx.]

[Footnote 29: We may judge of the bearing of the common term heathen as applied to non-Christian nations, when we consider that the Greeks and Romans characterized all foreigners as “barbarians,” that Mohammedans call all Christians “infidels,” and the Chinese greet them as “foreign devils.” The missionary enterprise as a work of conciliation should illustrate a broader spirit.]

[Footnote 30: The Celts, Maclear.]

[Footnote 31: Lives of the Fathers, Farrar.]

[Footnote 32: “Christianity,” says Max Mueller, “enjoyed no privileges and claimed no immunities when it boldly confronted and confounded the most ancient and the most powerful religions of the world. Even at present it craves no mercy and it receives no mercy from those whom our missionaries have to meet face to face in every part of the world; and unless our religion has ceased to be what it was, its defenders should not shrink from this new trial of its strength, but should encourage rather than depreciate the study of comparative theology.”--Science of Religion, p. 22.]

[Footnote 33: History of Christian Theology, Vol. I., p. 52.]




Original text by Frank F. Ellinwood [1891], edited and revised by William Mackis - this text © 2005.  Please note: all applicable material on this website is protected by law and may not be copied without express written permission. 

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