Heathen and Christian Apology


The example of Julian shows that there were representatives of heathenism in this period who were disposed to write from the stand-point of a proud and scornful superiority to Christianity. But many of the heathen authors, especially after the collapse of Julian's scheme, were constrained to assume quite a humble attitude. Instead of engaging in bitter and confident attacks upon their rival, they thought it needful to uphold their own tottering system, and to show reasons why it should obtain tolerance.

As advocates of a waning cause, the pagan apologists were placed at a disadvantage. But, on the other hand, there were certain respects in which the very dethronement of their religion helped them to arguments against their opponents. As Christianity now held the reins of power, it could be held responsible, with more show of reason than previously, for the calamities falling upon or threatening the Empire. It was also somewhat of an apologetic advantage to the heathen, that they had the opportunity of preaching the doctrines of religious tolerance to the Christians themselves. Thus we find Libanius reminding the partisans of Christianity that they were acting in direct violation of the principles of their own religion, in destroying the heathen temples; since that religion prescribes persuasion, and condemns any resort to force, as a means of its own advancement. External compulsion, he argues, can only produce hypocrites, not true converts. Themistius likewise extols the policy of toleration, for the benefit of the Christian rulers, and declares that he who applies force in matters of religion robs man of that freedom which God has made his birthright. These statements, to be sure, were liable to the suspicion of being prompted by mere self-interest; moreover, they involved a decided impeachment of heathenism, considering its long record in the past as an instigator of bloody persecution: still, it was an item quite favorable to the dignity of their cause, that the heathen apologists were able to preach the doctrine of tolerance to their opponents. Finally, the excessive reverence paid to the Virgin and the saints could be pleaded as an ostensible justification of polytheism; and, if we may judge from the carefulness of Christian writers to deny that the saints were in any wise regarded as deities, the advocates of paganism did not fail to improve the opportunity afforded.

Most of those renowned as apologists of heathenism in this period belonged to the Neo-Platonic school. Such was the case with Libanius and the contemporary rhetoricians, Themistius and Aurelius Symmachus; also with the philosophers, Proclus of Athens and Simplicius, belonging, the former to the fifth, and the latter to the sixth century. Both of these philosophers, however, had a high appreciation for Aristotle as well as for Plato. Proclus, according to Erdmann, represents the culmination of Neo-Platonism as a system, though in genius and originality he may be ranked below the earlier representatives, Plotinus and Jamblicus. [Geschichte der Philosophie, § 130.] A work by Proclus, while it does not mention Christianity by name, was designed to refute its doctrines of the creation and end of the world. This work found an answer, after about a century, from the pen of the Alexandrian John Philoponus. Among the heathen historians of the period, Ammianus Marcellinus presents an eminent example of impartiality; Eunapius and Zosimus, on the other hand, wrote in the spirit of zealous partisans.

The changed circumstances were not without their effect upon Christian apology. The apparent impotence of the heathen gods to defend their own cause gave a certain advantage to the friends of the gospel. But, on the other hand, they could not appeal to the pure lives of Christians with quite that boldness and confidence which were indulged by the apologists of an earlier period; for corruption had come in, and some of the very men who argued against heathenism openly deplored the vices of the ill-disciplined masses which had invaded the Church. Still, there was at hand plenty of trophies of the regenerating power and reforming influence of Christianity; so that no hesitation was felt in defending it from a practical, as well as a theoretical, stand-point. Learned and thoughtful apologies were produced. Some of the best talent of the Church was employed in this field.

Among the apologetic writers of the Greek Church, a prominent place must be assigned to the historian Eusebius Pamphilus, Bishop of Cæsarea in Palestine. His "Evangelic Preparation" and his "Evangelic Demonstration" are both elaborate treatises. The former is a critique of heathenism; the latter gives the positive arguments for the truth of Christianity. Like the earlier apologists, Eusebius makes large account of the element of prophecy. Among the points most successfully treated is the relation between the two dispensations, in the light of which both the use of the Old Testament and the departure from it in various particulars, on the part of Christians, are justified. Good work is also done in refuting the notion that Christianity could have been the product of fraud. These writings were probably quite effective in winning converts from the heathen. Thus the testimony of Evagrius imports, who speaks of Eusebius as "an especially able writer, to the extent in particular of inducing his readers to embrace our religion, though failing to perfect them in the faith." [Hist. Eccl., Pref.]

Athanasius, in his early years, before his absorbing engagement in the Arian controversy, devoted two treatises to apology; namely, his "Discourse against the Greeks," and his "Discourse on the Incarnation of the Logos." The first of these is mainly an expansion of the ideas contained in the first chapter of Paul's Epistle to the Romans. The second attempts to show the needfulness, the reasonableness, and the verity of the incarnation of the Son of God. In neither is there an ostentatious display of learning: quotation is made chiefly from the biblical writers; and the aptitude of the author for effective argumentation is revealed by his endeavor to confine himself to a clear and satisfactory presentation of a few points.

Theodoret, near the middle of the fifth century, composed an apology entitled, "The Healing of the Heathen Affections." It is a very well arranged treatise, and not a few points are handled with great skill. A decidedly happy sally is made, at the opening, against the pride especially characteristic of the Neo-Platonic philosophers or rhetoricians of the East, and manifested in disparaging comments on the style of the Bible, or in a repudiation of the thought of being instructed in the truths of religion by fishermen. He reminds such that they are unreasonably fastidious, and are acting counter to the example of the most illustrious fathers of philosophy. Men who properly value truth are not so very particular about the shape in which it is presented. Hence we have the account of Plato and others visiting foreign nations, and eagerly appropriating any thing valuable in their stores, regardless of Greek polish. It is the quality of the fabric that is a matter of concern, not the race or condition of the artisan. This is a principle universally allowed in trade, and has been virtually allowed by the proud Platonists themselves in affairs of the mind. They place Socrates at the very head of philosophers; and yet he was only the son of a stone-cutter, worked much himself at his father's trade, and, using the word in a technical sense, was comparatively illiterate. To prejudge the apostolic writings, therefore, on the charge that they are the products of mere fishermen, is to give the reins to blind and unreasonable prejudice. In the same connection he deals with the charge that Christians disparaged knowledge and summoned men to a headlong faith. He hints that the charge does not come with the best of grace from a party whose distinguished philosopher, Pythagoras, required his disciples, at least for a long interval, to accept his bare ipse dixit without questioning. He denies that the Christians disparage knowledge. At the same time he insists upon the value of faith, maintaining that it is in a manner the basis and condition of knowledge, since the elementary principles upon which rational thinking depends must be accepted by faith; and, moreover, the effective impulse to attention and investigation is dependent upon faith. In the following portions of the treatise he emphasizes the superior clearness, consistency, and elevation of Christian teaching on the great themes which concern man as a moral and religious being.

The list of Latin apologists in this period begins with Lactantius, a pupil of Arnobius. After having distinguished himself as a teacher of rhetoric at Sicca in North Africa, and also at the court of Diocletian in Nicomedia, he became an advocate of the Christian cause under the patronage of Constantine. His chief apologetic work, the "Divine Institutes," was composed in the first years of the Constantinian era. This production, as respects logical arrangement and economical presentation of thought, is quite remote from a model. As regards the subject-matter also, the author indicates that he had not been very thoroughly schooled in theology, and was better prepared to combat heathen errors than to give a positive construction of Christianity. His work, however, is written in elegant Latin, and shows a broad acquaintanceship with classic literature. Cicero is quoted frequently in a quite appreciative manner, and no doubt the flowing sentences of Lactantius were due in part to his familiarity with the writings of the great orator. The author of the "Institutes" comments to good effect upon the disagreements between the philosophers, upon the impurities and criminal practices connected with heathenism, and upon its formalism and materialism as contrasted with the spirituality of Christianity. "Our religion," he says, " is on this account firm and solid and unchangeable, because it teaches justice, because it is always with us, because it has its existence altogether in the soul of the worshipper, because it has the mind itself for a sacrifice." [v. 20] It is noteworthy that Lactantius appeals, with much of the confidence of the older apologists, to the transforming power exerted by Christianity upon the character and habits of its converts. [iii. 26.] Another feature connecting him with the earlier period is the little stress which he places upon the evidence of miracle as compared with that of prophecy; indeed, he hardly assigns to it as much weight as did some of his predecessors. "Christ," he says, "was not believed by us to be God on this account, because he did wonderful things, but because we saw that all things were done in His case which were announced to us by the prediction of the prophets. He performed wonderful deeds: we might have supposed Him to be a magician, as you [heathen] now suppose him to be, and the Jews then supposed Him, if all the prophets did not with one accord proclaim that Christ would do those very things." [v. 3.]

In the early part of the fifth century, the Spanish presbyter Orosius wrote a general history with an apologetic design. His aim was to show, by an ample exhibit of the evils which had befallen men apart from Christianity, that it could not properly be held responsible for existing evils. Near the middle of the same century, the Gallic presbyter Salvianus, in a work on the providence and judgments of God, accounted for the evils of the times in a way less sparing of his fellow-Christians; for he painted their follies and vices in dark, perhaps overdrawn, colors, and represented the untoward events from which they were suffering as only a just retribution from the hand of God. But our attention is speedily withdrawn from these writings to a production of far greater scope and power which came between them. "The City of God " (De Civitas Dei), by Augustine, ranks as the masterpiece of apology contributed by the Latin Church after the days of Tertullian. It suffers indeed from diffuseness. In terseness and energy it falls below the treatises of the fiery Carthaginian, but it rises far above them in breadth and elevation of thought. The city or kingdom of God, as contrasted with the kingdom of this world, is the theme to which the twenty-two books of the work are devoted; and the majesty of the treatment corresponds in many passages to the majesty of the subject. One cannot rise from its perusal without feeling, with Augustine, that this divine city is indeed "a city surpassingly glorious, whether we view it as it still lives by faith in this fleeting course of time, and sojourns as a stranger in the midst of the ungodly, or as it shall dwell in the fixed stability of its eternal seat, which it now with patience waits for."

Augustine wrote the "City of God" in the closing period of his life, a time that was fruitful in objections, from a temporal stand-point, against Christianity. Alaric and his Goths had sacked the city of Rome. The barbaric inundation had begun, which threatened to sweep away the strongest pillars of the classic civilization. There was a chance for the heathen to complain that the adversities of the State were due to the usurpation of Christianity against the honor and the worship of the gods. To such murmurings Augustine replies by showing that temporal calamities are no new thing in history, nothing following exclusively in the wake of Christianity. He reminds the heathen Romans that their ancestors were again and again crushed under the weight of adversity, while yet there was not a Christian in their midst. He points to the fact that Rome, according to the teaching of her most honored poet, was founded under the patronage of conquered gods,--divinities whose defeat had been proclaimed by the ruined walls and burning buildings of Troy. [i. 2.] What security, he inquires, could be expected from such gods? and points to a long list of instances in which their guardianship had failed. Where, he asks, were the gods while Rome was being desolated with these calamities? "Where were they when, during ten successive years of reverses, the Roman army suffered frequent and great losses among the Veians? Where were they when the Gauls took, sacked, burned, and desolated Rome?" [iii. 17.] It is in poor taste, he argues, for the worshippers of such gods to complain about the disastrous effects of Christianity, especially in face of the fact that nothing but Christian sanctuaries afforded them a refuge in the recent sacking of the imperial city.

But Augustine rises above this plane of judgment, and asserts that a religion is not to be estimated chiefly, if at all, by its relation to temporal prosperity and dominion. He has the boldness to declare that the universal Empire of Rome is nothing indispensable. Its upbuilding was, to be sure, in a sense, a work of Divine providence. But it was only the preference for the lesser of two evils which inclined the Supreme Ruler to concede the government of the world to the Romans. "When the kingdoms of the East had been illustrious for a long time, it pleased God that there should also arise a Western empire, which, though later in time, should be more illustrious in extent and greatness. And, in order that it might overcome the grievous evils which existed among other nations, He purposely granted it to such men as, for the sake of honor and praise and glory, consulted well for their country, in whose glory they sought their own, and whose safety they did not hesitate to prefer to their own, suppressing the desire of wealth and many other vices for this one vice, namely, the love of praise." [v. 13.] Roman conquest and rule are, at best, only an unfortunate necessity springing from the abnormal condition of the times. Indeed, good men may fairly ask themselves the question, whether it is quite fitting to rejoice in extended empire." For the iniquity of those with whom just wars are carried on favors the growth of a kingdom, which would certainly have been small if neighbors had not, by any wrong, provoked the carrying on of war against them; and human affairs being thus more happy, all kingdoms would have been small, rejoicing in neighborly concord." [iv. 15.] The preserving a great empire intact and prosperous, the enjoyment by sovereigns of long and victorious reigns, -these are to be counted very subordinate tests when the truth and merit of a religion are under consideration. God may, indeed, be concerned to show that temporal prosperity is in no wise dependent upon serving the heathen gods. And this lesson he has inculcated in a most signal manner by the extraordinary prosperity given to a Constantine and a Theodosius, men who totally repudiated the heathen worship. But, on the other hand, He has taken equal pains to show that temporal prosperity is by no means the chief concern or the principal gift of Christianity. "Lest any emperor should become a Christian in order to merit the happiness of Constantine, when every one should be a Christian for the sake of eternal life, God took away Jovian far sooner than Julian, and permitted that Gratian should be slain by the sword of a tyrant." [v. 25.]

With great emphasis Augustine urges that the supreme test of a religion is its ability to bestow spiritual and eternal good. Among the most striking features of his apology is the manner in which it soars above the current heathen notion of the gods as mere gods of the State, or patrons of earthly weal, and dwells upon the overshadowing importance of that spiritual and eternal kingdom which is to unfold its glory above and beyond all the wrecks of time. He teaches that good and ill in this world are mainly disciplinary or declarative. God punishes sin enough in the present to show the reality of His providence; He spares punishment sufficiently to illustrate His patience, and to intimate that there is judgment still in reserve. He bestows good things upon those asking for them sufficiently to demonstrate that gifts of this kind are at his disposal; He withholds good things in enough instances to teach that such are not the only rewards of His service, and to train men in godliness rather than in covetousness. From the Christian stand-point the chief concern is, not what kind of ills are suffered, but what kind of a man suffers them. [i. 8.] No earthly evil call harm a true member of Christ. All things work together for his good, for all things are made conducive to his preparation for the heavenly estate, in which is the unspeakable blessedness of the vision of God. [This was an emphatic point of view with Augustine. The vision of God, as it shall be enjoyed in the future life, was regarded by him as the peculiar reward of righteousness. His own estimate hardly tell short of that of Plotinus, whom he quotes as saying that the vision of God is "so infinitely desirable, that he who enjoys all other blessings in abundance, and has not this, is supremely miserable" (x. 16).] Now, what trust is to be reposed in the heathen gods as respects the bestowment of these spiritual and eternal blessings? Who would be guilty of the madness of expecting blessings of this order from the gods whose deeds are celebrated by the poets or represented in the theatres, -deeds more worthy of abhorrence than of imitation? "Shall eternal life be hoped for from these by whom this short and temporal life is polluted?" [vi. 6.]

In some of the philosophers, Augustine finds a much better theology than the poetical or the civil. But it is only as they approached Christian ideas, he argues, that they give any worthy ideal of man's future estate; and, as respects showing the way to that ideal, they are very poor and uncertain guides. Confessions by themselves of their uncertainty are not wanting. "Porphyry [for example] says that no system of doctrine which furnishes the universal way for delivering the soul has as yet been received, either from the truest philosophy, or from the ideas and practices of the Indians, or from the reasoning of the Chaldæans, or from any source whatever, and that no historical reading had made him acquainted with that way." [x. 32.] Porphyry, as Augustine states, wrote as one who had no true knowledge of Christianity. The universal way for delivering the soul has been published, and abundantly attested by prophecy and miracle and the experience of confessors and martyrs and all true believers, -- the way concerning which Abraham received the divine assurance, "In thy seed shall all nations be blessed;" the way which the Saviour, after He had taken flesh of the seed of Abraham, declared, when He said of himself, "I am the way, the truth, and the life;" the way which purifies the whole man, and prepares the mortal in his whole being for immortality.

In the course of his argument, Augustine attempts to explain or to vindicate some of the more profound doctrines of the Christian system. A considerable space is given to tracing the history of the city of God and of its earthly rival. From the beginning of human history, the antagonism between the two cities has been manifest." The founder of the earthly city was a fratricide. Overcome with envy, he slew his own brother, a citizen of the eternal city, and a sojourner on earth," --a deed paralleled, to some extent, at the foundation of Rome; "for of that city also, as one of their poets has mentioned, 'the first walls were stained with a brother's blood." [xv. 5.] As were the relations in the beginning, so will they be even unto the end. The Church will continue to go forward on pilgrimage "amid the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God." No earthly vision can distinguish accurately, in the present, between the bounds of the two cities. But God knows who are citizens of the one and who of the other, and an unmistakable and eternal barrier shall be set up between them by the day of judgment.