[New lecture, May 23, 2011.  Pp. 73-89 of the Dulles book should prove useful here.]


In this, conquer

By the end of the 3rd century AD, Christian thinkers had in large part won the debate with their pagan opponents.  While a few great philosophers (like Porphyry) questioned the new faith, the greatest philosophical minds of the time were, more and more, coming from the ranks of the Christians—all the more remarkable when one considers that embracing the Christian faith meant persecution and death for many of these men.

When Constantine became emperor (co-emperor in 312, sole emperor 324-337), the intellectual victory of Christianity seemed even more assured.  Unlike some of his great predecessors, Eusebius found himself supported encouraged by the emperor.  He and another great Christian writer (Lactantius) became tutors to the emperor’s sons.

With both political and intellectual victory, Christianity, in short order, became the dominant religion of the empire, soon, just about the only legal religion in the empire. But there were two last pagan advances to be checked.

Julian the Apostate (361-363)

The first attempt to reverse the Christian victory was a combined political/intellectual assault from the emperor Julian, a man who would eventually be called Julia the Apostate.

Even though he was a nephew of Constantine and cousin of Constantine’s successor Constantius, Julian had an exceedingly rough time of it growing up—or, more accurately, because he was a nephew of Constantine and a cousin of Constantius, he had a rough time growing up. Soldiers zealous for preserving rule only be those in the *direct* line of Constantine slaughtered Julian’s parents when Julian was only five years old.  Julian himself was watched closely all his life, and sometimes even kept in a virtual prison.  He was allowed few friends and associates, and many time the friends he was permitted to have were Constantius' spies.

Nevertheless, Julian turned out to be a remarkably able young man.  He was first-rate scholar, the kind of kid who just devours books.  He knew thoroughly the OT and NT, all of the classical writers (including, of course, Homer, Sophocles, Herodotus, Plato, and Aristotle).  He was especially well-read in the Neo-Platonist philosophy fashionable among both Christians and the relatively few remaining non-Christians in the 4th century.

Julian was also a first-class leader.  He was put in charge of Gaul when Constantius took off for east.  This was supposed to be a kind of figurehead position, but Julian took charge, and turned out to be remarkably adept.  He thwarted invasion attempts by the Franks/Allemani, then decided to launch a punitive expedition across the Rhine.  Here, too, he continued to win.  Not only that, Julian turned out to be an excellent administrator.  But, you see, with a ruler like Constantius on the throne, this can get you into trouble.  Julian's very successes brought him under suspicion.  Constantius ordered him to send troops to east.  Julian, knowing that to do so would allow barbarian invasion, simply refused.  Constantius then decided he'd use his army against Julian--but on the way, he dies.  And now in charge of Rome?

Julian: the philosopher/administrator/general/writer--perhaps another Gaius Julius Caesar, only better.  Julian was one of the most moral men ever to rise to such a position, far more moral than Gaius Julius Caesar.  Julian's marriage was forced on him as a political expedient.  Yet there is no record that he was ever unfaithful to his wife, or that he engaged in any irregular unions either before or after marriage.

If you wanted someone to finally complete the job of restoring the greatness of Rome, Julian was your man.  Except for one small default.  Julian had a secret.  A most surprising secret.  You see Julian, although he never told anyone this, was a pagan.   Now how could this be?  Julian was raised in a Christian home.  He had nothing but Christian tutors.  He was in church all the time.  But Julian had no use for Christianity at all, and longed for the return of paganism.

Now when I call Julian a pagan, I need to make it clear that his paganism was not the ordinary superstitious kind.  His was the kind of paganism advocated by the Neo-Platonist philosophers.  In the thinking of these men, the gods were not supermen, but the personifications of philosophical principles.  Aphrodite and Eros principle of love, Saturn principle of truth, etc. and it was the worship of these principles that Julian wanted to restore--and a restoration of the classical culture Julian believed the Christians had destroyed.

Julian was no fool.  He realized that he wasn't going to get rid of Christianity through persecution--and he had no taste for persecution anyway.  Julian decided that a more effective tool in destroying the church would be toleration.

Julian called back the various Christians whose beliefs had earlier been deemed heretical.   Julian made sure they could teach openly, hoping in that way to weaken the church.  Likewise, Julian favored the Jews, believing that this too would weaken the church's hold on the minds and hearts of Romans.  Julian weeded the Christians out of the educational system, forbidding them to teach the classics.

But Julian's big hope was a restored paganism.  He opened the pagan temples again.  He recruited and organized a pagan clergy, a clergy in some ways modeled after Christian clergy.  Julian brought in elaborate and splendid pagan sacrifices and ceremonies.
And the result of all this in terms of religious change?  Nothing.  No rallying of pagan sentiment, no temples filled with worshippers.  Pagans didn't really care.  Julian's ascetic, moral paganism had no appeal to the masses.  If you're going to have a moral religion, you might as well be a Christian.

But Julian hardly got a fair chance.  Only 2 years into his reign, Julian set out to deal with the Persian threat on the eastern borders.  He got all the way to Ctesiphon, but was unable to bring Persian troops to battle.  During a minor skirmish, he was fatally wounded, perhaps by one of his own soldiers, a disgruntled Christian.  As he died, flung his blood into air: "Galilean, thou hast conquered."  or "Be satisfied."  He was only 32.  A real tragedy, for no man as capable was to follow for a long time.  Had Julian only lived...well, who knows what would have happened?

Julian was probably the last man who had a chance of preserving the empire of Constantine and Diocletian intact.  After his death, no emperor had the combination of military ability, administrative expertise, popularity and luck necessary to hold empire together.  Same old story: usurpations, mutinies, barbarian invasions.  There was only one other emperor even close to bringing stability.

Theodosius the Great (379-395)

Theodosius made one last valiant attempt to preserve, not just the Eastern portion of the empire, but the Western empire (including Rome itself)  to its past greatness  He saw (quite rightly) saw unity as the key to success, and he  attempted to secure this unity by making Rome entirely Christian.  He made sacrifice again a capital offense.  There is no record that anyone ever executed: no pagans were willing to be martyrs—and small wonder.

Some pagan temples were converted to churches, many others were destroyed.  It’s a real shame that much great art and architecture was lost as the temples were cleansed or destroyed. Theodosius wasn’t directly responsible, and he tried to preserve art treasures.  But he didn't do a whole lot to stop destruction of the temples, and many of his officials actually aided the vandals.  But one can understand why the destruction went as far as it did, and why no pagans stood up for what was being destroyed.  When the temples were opened up, all sorts of sordid secrets came out.  People learned the secrets of the temples: hollow statues or speaking tubes through which “gods” gave worshippers answers.  Priests were discovered to have been disguising themselves as "gods"  to seduce or cover up their affairs with female worshippers

 When the Nile river floods provided ideal conditions even after the destruction of the Serapeum in Alexandria, it was clear to everyone that the pagan gods were nothing at all.  The relative peace, prosperity, and unity of the empire let Christians boast that the switch of religions had done Rome good, that their religion had done exactly what people always want their religion to do, it had made them prosperous in this world.

The end of the world

But peace, prosperity, and unity didn't last.  Theodosius at his death split the empire between his sons.  Arcadius takes over in east, Honorius in the west.  And then the fun begins--a series of invasions which eventually destroys the western empire and brings the east to its knees. And for the few remaining pagans, it was easy enough to see why these disasters had hit the Roman people.  The Romans had abandoned the gods, and now the gods were abandoning them.  The remedy?  "Give me that old time religion.”

For Christian theologians, it was a difficult task to explain why the Romans shouldn't have simply gone back to the "old time religion" of paganism.  A difficult task--but one they were more than able to see through.  St. Augustine particularly immensely successful both in explaining the disasters that had fallen on the Roman people and in explain the relationship between religion and political success.
Augustine and the City of God

Shortly after the Visigoths under Alaric sacked Rome (410), Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (AD 354-430) wrote his greatest work, The City of God, a book that, among other things, answers the pagan charge that the barbarian attacks prove the folly of following Christianity.

[In getting the overall argument of the City of God, you’ll find it helpful to read through the Chapter summaries here: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1201.htm]

Augustine argues, first of all, that such disasters are not unique, that one can find similar things happening throughout the days of the Roman empire, even during those periods where worship of the old gods was most fervent.

Secondly, Christianity had done some good.  The barbarian invaders had been partially Christianized and they were less ruthless than they might otherwise have been.

The sufferings of Christians aren’t a reproach to God.  These sufferings demonstrate neither his powerlessness nor his lack of goodness.  God allows suffering sometimes as just punishment for our sins, but, as often, for the purpose of purification.

Of course, put so simply, this seems harsh, but as you read Augustine, it’s clear that there is a tremendous comfort to those who have suffered.  Particularly, Augustine has much to say to comfort women (and men) who were raped by the barbarians.

But is there a fear that even another's lust may pollute the violated? It will not pollute, if it be another's: if it pollute, it is not another's, but is shared also by the polluted. But since purity is a virtue of the soul, and has for its companion virtue, the fortitude which will rather endure all ills than consent to evil; and since no one, however magnanimous and pure, has always the disposal of his own body, but can control only the consent and refusal of his will, what sane man can suppose that, if his body be seized and forcibly made use of to satisfy the lust of another, he thereby loses his purity?

For the sanctity of the body does not consist in the integrity of its members, nor in their exemption from all touch; for they are exposed to various accidents which do violence to and wound them, and the surgeons who administer relief often perform operations that sicken the spectator. A midwife, suppose, has (whether maliciously or accidentally, or through unskillfulness) destroyed the virginity of some girl, while endeavoring to ascertain it: I suppose no one is so foolish as to believe that, by this destruction of the integrity of one organ, the virgin has lost anything even of her bodily sanctity. And thus, so long as the soul keeps this firmness of purpose which sanctifies even the body, the violence done by another’s lust makes no impression on this bodily sanctity, which is preserved intact by one’s own persistent continence.

Augustine follows this up with an excellent argument against suicide in any circumstances.  

Perhaps the most important contribution of the City of God is the image that dominates the 2nd half of the book particularly.  Augustine says that the Christian lives in two cities, an earthly city and a heavenly city.  While on this earth, the Christian makes legitimate use of the earthly city and all of assets both material and intellectual.

In the intellectual realm, this is what Augustine himself does.  He uses ideas from Cicero, Varro, and Porphyry (!), incorporating in his own work all that he finds useful, correcting and improving their ideas when he needs to , rejecting what doesn’t seem suitable.
Some Christians (including Augustine’s great contemporary Jerome) had worried about this.  Jerome talked of a disturbing dream:

Suddenly I was caught up in the spirit and dragged before the judgment seat of the Judge; and here the light was so bright, and those who stood around were so radiant, that I cast myself upon the ground and did not dare to look up. Asked who and what I was I replied: "I am a Christian." But He who presided said: "Thou liest, thou art a follower of Cicero and not of Christ. For 'where thy treasure is, there will thy heart be also.'"(4) Instantly I became dumb, and amid the strokes of the lash--for He had ordered me to be scourged--I was tortured more severely still by the fire of conscience, considering with myself that verse, "In the grave who shall give thee thanks?"(5) Yet for all that I began to cry and to bewail myself, saying: "Have mercy upon me, O Lord: have mercy upon me."

For Augustine, though, using Ciceronian ideas isn’t a worry:  the classical heritage is his own, and he uses it without hesitation.  He is not the first Christian to do so, but he is in some ways the most successful, and perhaps the most important single individual in creating the Christian/classical synthesis that comes to dominate Western philosophy and theology.  

Also very important is Augustine’s teaching that Christian hope is not inextricably bound with the fate of his earthly country.  “This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through,” says one spiritual.  And the Bible itself (in Hebrews) says, “Here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come.”

The gift of the Greeks

I fear the Danaans (Greeks) even when they are bringing gifts, said the Trojan priest Laocoon, and while Greek philosophy proved very valuable to Christian apologists in their struggles to justify their faith, philosophy was in some ways as potentially dangerous as the Trojan Horse.  Or, perhaps, it’s better to compare philosophy to a double-edged sword: sometimes very useful, sometimes destructive depending on how used.  

Note that the combination of philosophy and the prophetic tradition gave the church a double dose of the “will to truth,” and two important tools for trying to find that truth: reason and scripture. Theoretically, this should work perfectly, and it certainly works well with Augustine himself. Few writers before or since show as much wisdom and clarity as Augustine.  Augustine uses his tools well particularly in his confrontation with heretics, false teachers who threatened to divide the church. But perhaps Augustine went a bit far.

In contemporary of Augustine, a man named Pelagius (AD 354-420?), tried to encourage the Christians of Rome to be a little more rigorous in their lifestyle, emphasizing the importance of good works to a truly Christian life.  Augustine, though he had earlier regarded Pelagius as a saintly man, thought this a heresy, a denial of salvation by God’s grace.  At a council at Carthage (419), Augustine secured the affirmation of certain principles which (allegedly at least) Pelagius denied.  Here’s a nice, neat Wikipedia summary:

•    Death came from sin, not man's physical nature.
•    Infants must be baptized to be cleansed from original sin.
•    Justifying grace covers past sins and helps avoid future sins.
•    The grace of Christ imparts strength and will to act out God's commandments.
•    No good works can come without God's grace.
•    We confess we are sinners because it is true, not from humility.
•    The saints ask for forgiveness for their own sins.
•    The saints also confess to be sinners because they are.
•    Children dying without baptism are excluded from both the Kingdom of heaven and eternal life.   

Now notice what is happening here.  We have Augustine’s will to truth working toward a kind of orthodoxy here.  But if these points are established as dogma, what then?  Must they be no longer questioned?  

Meanwhile, back at the ranch (and just a bit earlier)

The controversy been Pelagius and Augustine is by no means the first nor the last example of this dilemma.  Later Christians, trying to balance things out, said that what we need is a recognition of one simple principle: in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty.  But what is essential?  And what is not?

In 325 AD, the Constantine thought he had fixed the problem once and for all at least as far as his dominions were concerned.  He was disturbed at what was called the Arian controversy and its potential for dividing the church.  To settle the issue, Constantine called a great ecumenical council, getting 220 bishops together, and asking them to settle the issue.  The bishops didn’t seem to have much trouble.  Only two of the 220 didn’t agree to the condemnation of Arius.  Further, the bishops adopted the Nicene Creed which seemed to settle the issues once and for all: here is what Christians believe.

But the Nicene Creed included a word not found in the Bible itself.  Christians were to affirm that Christ was “homo-ousias,” of the same essence as God.  Some of the bishops were uncomfortable, and preferred a different formula.  Shouldn’t we say instead that Christ is “homoi-ousias” of “like” essence rather than “same” essence?

This came to be called the Semi-Arian position.  It was eventually condemned as a heresy by the 2nd Ecumenical Council (Constantinople, AD 381).  But, again, controversy didn’t die.  Further divisions included:

“If ye bite and devour one another, take heed lest ye be consumed one of another,” warned the Apostle Paul.  And Jesus himself warned that a house divided against itself cannot stand.  Such divisions helped the Eastern Roman Empire (the Byzantine Empire) snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, weakening the empire to the point where the Moslems had an easy time swallowing up what had once been the most fervently Christian lands in the world.