HISTORY OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH*
CHRISTIAN LIFE IN CONTRAST WITH PAGAN CORRUPTION.
§ 98. The Heathen Family.
In ancient Greece and Rome the state was the highest object of life, and the only virtues properly recognized—wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice—were political virtues. Aristotle makes the state, that is the organized body of free citizens632 (foreigners and slaves are excluded), precede the family and the individual, and calls man essentially a “political animal.” In Plato’s ideal commonwealth the state is everything and owns everything, even the children.
This political absolutism destroys the proper dignity and rights of the individual and the family, and materially hinders the development of the domestic and private virtues. Marriage was allowed no moral character, but merely a political import for the preservation of the state, and could not be legally contracted except by free citizens. Socrates, in instructing his son concerning this institution, tells him, according to Xenophon, that we select only such wives as we hope will yield beautiful children. Plato recommends even community of women to the class of warriors in his ideal republic, as the best way to secure vigorous citizens. Lycurgus, for similar reasons, encouraged adultery under certain circumstances, requiring old men to lend their young and handsome wives to young and strong men.
Woman was placed almost on the same level with the slave. She differs, indeed, from the slave, according to Aristotle, but has, after all, really no will of her own, and is hardly capable of a higher virtue than the slave. Shut up in a retired apartment of the house, she spent her life with the slaves. As human nature is essentially the same in all ages, and as it in never entirely forsaken by the guidance of a kind Providence, we must certainly suppose that female virtue was always more or less maintained and appreciated even among the heathen. Such characters as Penelope, Nausicaa, Andromache, Antigone, Iphigenia, and Diotima, of the Greek poetry and history, bear witness of this. Plutarch’s advice to married people, and his letter of consolation to his wife after the death of their daughter, breathe a beautiful spirit of purity and affection. But the general position assigned to woman by the poets, philosophers, and legislators of antiquity, was one of social oppression and degradation. In Athens she was treated as a minor during lifetime, and could not inherit except in the absence of male heirs. To the question of Socrates: “Is there any one with whom you converse less than with the wife?” his pupil, Aristobulus, replies: “No one, or at least very few.” If she excelled occasionally, in Greece, by wit and culture, and, like Aspasia, Phryne, Laïs, Theodota, attracted the admiration and courtship even of earnest philosophers like Socrates, and statesmen like Pericles, she generally belonged to the disreputable class of the hetaerae or amicae. In Corinth they were attached to the temple of Aphrodite, and enjoyed the sanction of religion for the practice of vice.633 These dissolute women were esteemed above housewives, and became the proper and only representatives of some sort of female culture and social elegance. To live with them openly was no disgrace even for married men.634 How could there be any proper conception and abhorrence of the sin of licentiousness and adultery, if the very gods, a Jupiter, a Mars, and a Venus, were believed to be guilty of those sins! The worst vices of earth were transferred to Olympus.
Modesty forbids the mention of a still more odious vice, which even depraved nature abhors, which yet was freely discussed and praised by ancient poets and philosophers, practised with neither punishment nor dishonor, and likewise divinely sanctioned by the example of Apollo and Hercules, and by the lewdness of Jupiter with Ganymede.635
The Romans were originally more virtuous, domestic, and chaste, as they were more honest and conscientious, than the Greeks. With them the wife was honored by the title domina, matrona, materfamilias. At the head of their sacerdotal system stood the flamens of Jupiter, who represented marriage in its purity, and the vestal virgins, who represented virginity. The Sabine women interceding between their parents and their husbands, saved the republic; the mother and the wife of Coriolanus by her prayers averted his wrath, and raised the siege of the Volscian army; Lucretia who voluntarily sacrificed her life to escape the outrage to her honor offered by king Tarquin, and Virginia who was killed by her father to save her from slavery and dishonor, shine in the legendary history of Rome as bright examples of unstained purity. But even in the best days of the republic the legal status of woman was very low. The Romans likewise made marriage altogether subservient to the interest of the state, and allowed it in its legal form to free citizens alone. The proud maxims of the republic prohibited even the legitimate nuptials of a Roman with a foreign queen; and Cleopatra and Berenice were, as strangers, degraded to the position of concubines of Mark Antony and Titus. According to ancient custom the husband bought his bride from her parents, and she fulfilled the coëmption by purchasing, with three pieces of copper, a just introduction to his house and household deities. But this was for her simply an exchange of one servitude for another. She became the living property of a husband who could lend her out, as Cato lent his wife to his friend Hortensius, and as Augustus took Livia from Tiberius Nero.” Her husband or master, says Gibbon,636 “was invested with the plenitude of paternal power. By his judgment or caprice her behavior was approved or censured, or chastised; he exercised the jurisdiction of life and death; and it was allowed, that in cases of adultery or drunkenness, the sentence might be properly inflicted. She acquired and inherited for the sole profit of her lord; and so clearly was woman defined, not as a person, but as a thing, that, if the original title were deficient, she might be claimed like other movables, by the use and possession of an entire year.”
Monogamy was the rule both in Greece and in Rome, but did not exclude illegitimate connexions. Concubinage, in its proper legal sense, was a sort of secondary marriage with a woman of servile or plebeian extraction, standing below the dignity of a matron and above the infamy of a prostitute. It was sanctioned and regulated by law; it prevailed both in the East and the West from the age of Augustus to the tenth century, and was preferred to regular marriage by Vespasian, and the two Antonines, the best Roman emperors. Adultery was severely punished, at times even with sudden destruction of the offender; but simply as an interference with the rights and property of a free man. The wife had no legal or social protection against the infidelity of her husband. The Romans worshipped a peculiar goddess of domestic life; but her name Viriplaca, the appeaser of husbands, indicates her partiality. The intercourse of a husband with the slaves of his household and with public prostitutes was excluded from the odium and punishment of adultery. We say nothing of that unnatural abomination alluded to in Rom. 1:26, 27, which seems to have passed from the Etruscans and Greeks to the Romans, and prevailed among the highest as well as the lowest classes. The women, however, were almost as corrupt as their husbands, at least in the imperial age. Juvenal calls a chaste wife a “rara avis in terris.” Under Augustus free-born daughters could no longer be found for the service of Vesta, and even the severest laws of Domitian could not prevent the six priestesses of the pure goddess from breaking their vow. The pantomimes and the games of Flora, with their audacious indecencies, were favorite amusements.” The unblushing, undisguised obscenity of the Epigrams of Martial, of the Romances of Apuleius and Petronius, and of some of the Dialogues of Lucian, reflected but too faithfully the spirit of their times.”637
Divorce is said to have been almost unknown in the ancient days of the Roman republic, and the marriage tie was regarded as indissoluble. A senator was censured for kissing his wife in the presence of their daughter. But the merit of this virtue is greatly diminished if we remember that the husband always had an easy outlet for his sensual passions in the intercourse with slaves and concubines. Nor did it outlast the republic. After the Punic war the increase of wealth and luxury, and the influx of Greek and Oriental licentiousness swept away the stern old Roman virtues. The customary civil and religious rites of marriage were gradually disused; the open community of life between persons of similar rank was taken as sufficient evidence of their nuptials; and marriage, after Augustus, fell to the level of any partnership, which might be dissolved by the abdication of one of the associates. “Passion, interest, or caprice,” says Gibbon on the imperial age, “suggested daily, motives for the dissolution of marriage; a word, a sign, a message, a letter, the mandate of a freedman, declared the separation; the most tender of human connections was degraded to a transient society of profit or pleasure.”638
Various remedies were tardily adopted as the evil spread, but they proved inefficient, until the spirit of Christianity gained the control of public opinion and improved the Roman legislation, which, however, continued for a long time to fluctuate between the custom of heathenism and the wishes of the church. Another radical evil of heathen family life, which the church had to encounter throughout the whole extent of the Roman Empire, was the absolute tyrannical authority of the parent over the children, extending even to the power of life and death, and placing the adult son of a Roman citizen on a level with the movable things and slaves, “whom the capricious master might alienate or destroy, without being responsible to any earthly tribunal.”
With this was connected the unnatural and monstrous custom of exposing poor, sickly, and deformed children to a cruel death, or in many cases to a life of slavery and infamy-a custom expressly approved, for the public interest, even by a Plato, an Aristotle, and a Seneca! “Monstrous offspring,” says the great Stoic philosopher, “we destroy; children too, if born feeble and ill-formed, we drown. It is not wrath, but reason, thus to separate the useless from the healthy.” “The exposition of children”—to quote once more from Gibbon—”was the prevailing and stubborn vice of antiquity: it was sometimes prescribed, often permitted, almost always practised with impunity by the nations who never entertained the Roman ideas of paternal power; and the dramatic poets, who appeal to the human heart, represent with indifference a popular custom which was palliated by the motives of economy and compassion …. The Roman Empire was stained with the blood of infants, till such murders were included, by Valentinian and his colleagues, in the letter and spirit of the Cornelian law. The lessons of jurisprudence and Christianity had been insufficient to eradicate this inhuman practice, till their gentle influence was fortified by the terrors of capital punishment.”639
§ 99. The Christian Family.
Such was the condition of the domestic life of the ancient world, when Christianity, with its doctrine of the sanctity of marriage, with its injunction of chastity, and with its elevation of woman from her half-slavish condition to moral dignity and equality with man, began the work of a silent transformation, which secured incalculable blessings to generations yet unborn. It laid the foundation for a well-ordered family life. It turned the eye from the outward world to the inward sphere of affection, from the all-absorbing business of politics and state-life into the sanctuary of home; and encouraged the nurture of those virtues of private life, without which no true public virtue can exist. But, as the evil here to be abated, particularly the degradation of the female sex and the want of chastity, was so deeply rooted and thoroughly interwoven in the whole life of the old world, this ennobling of the family, like the abolition of slavery, was necessarily a very slow process. We cannot wonder, therefore, at the high estimate of celibacy, which in the eyes of many seemed to be the only radical escape from the impurity and misery of married life as it generally stood among the heathen. But, although the fathers are much more frequent and enthusiastic in the praise of virginity than in that of marriage, yet their views on this subject show an immense advance upon the moral standard of the greatest sages and legislators of Greece and Rome.
CHASTITY before marriage, in wedlock, and in celibacy, in man as well as in woman, so rare in paganism, was raised to the dignity of a cardinal virtue and made the corner-stone of the family. Many a female martyr preferred cruel torture and death to the loss of honor. When St. Perpetua fell half dead from the horns of a wild bull in the arena, she instinctively drew together her dress, which had been torn in the assault. The acts of martyrs and saints tell marvellous stories, exaggerated no doubt, yet expressive of the ruling Christian sentiment, about heroic resistance to carnal temptation, the sudden punishment of unjust charges of impurity by demoniacal possession or instant death, the rescue of courtesans from a life of shame and their radical conversion and elevation even to canonical sanctity.640 The ancient councils deal much with carnal sins so fearfully prevalent, and unanimously condemn them in every shape and form. It is true, chastity in the early church and by the unanimous consent of the fathers was almost identified with celibacy, as we shall see hereafter; but this excess should not blind us to the immense advance of patristic over heathen morals.
WOMAN was emancipated, in the best sense of the term, from the bondage of social oppression, and made the life and light of a Christian home. Such pure and heroic virgins as the martyred Blandina, and Perpetua, and such devoted mothers as Nonna, Anthusa, and Monica, we seek in vain among the ancient Greek and Roman maidens and matrons, and we need not wonder that the heathen Libanius, judging from such examples as the mother of his pupil Chrysostom, reluctantly exclaimed: “What women have these Christians!” The schoolmen of the middle ages derived from the formation of woman an ingenious argument for her proper position: Eve was not taken from the feet of Adam to be his slave, nor from his head to be his ruler, but from his side to be his beloved partner.641
At the same time here also we must admit that the ancient church was yet far behind the ideal set up in the New Testament, and counterbalanced the elevation of woman by an extravagant over-estimate of celibacy. It was the virgin far more than the faithful wife and mother of children that was praised and glorified by the fathers; and among the canonized saints of the Catholic calendar there is little or no room for husbands and wives, although the patriarchs, Moses, and some of the greatest prophets (Isaiah, Ezekiel), and apostles (Peter taking the lead) lived in honorable wedlock.
MARRIAGE was regarded in the church from the beginning as a sacred union of body and soul for the propagation of civil society, and the kingdom of God, for the exercise of virtue and the promotion of happiness. It was clothed with a sacramental or semi-sacramental character on the basis of Paul’s comparison of the marriage union with the relation of Christ to his church.642 It was in its nature indissoluble except in case of adultery, and this crime was charged not only to the woman, but to the man as even the more guilty party, and to every extra-connubial carnal connection. Thus the wife was equally protected against the wrongs of the husband, and chastity was made the general law of the family life.
We have a few descriptions of Christian homes from the ante-Nicene age, one from an eminent Greek father, another from a married presbyter of the Latin church.
Clement of Alexandria enjoins upon Christian married persons united prayer and reading of the Scriptures,643 as a daily morning exercise, and very beautifully says: “The mother is the glory of her children, the wife is the glory of her husband, both are the glory of the wife, God is the glory of all together.”644
Tertullian, at the close of the book which he wrote to his wife, draws the following graphic picture, which, though somewhat idealized, could be produced only from the moral spirit of the gospel and actual experience:645 “How can I paint the happiness of a marriage which the church ratifies, the oblation (the celebration of the communion) confirms, the benediction seals, angels announce, the Father declares valid. Even upon earth, indeed, sons do not legitimately marry without the consent of their fathers. What a union of two believers—one hope, one vow, one discipline, and one worship! They are brother and sister, two fellow-servants, one spirit and one flesh. Where there is one flesh, there is also one spirit. They pray together, fast together, instruct, exhort, and support each other. They go together to the church of God, and to the table of the Lord. They share each other’s tribulation, persecution, and revival. Neither conceals anything from the other; neither avoids, neither annoys the other. They delight to visit the sick, supply the needy, give alms without constraint, and in daily zeal lay their offerings before the altar without scruple or hindrance. They do not need to keep the sign of the cross hidden, nor to express slyly their Christian joy, nor to suppress the blessing. Psalms and hymns they sing together, and they vie with each other in singing to God. Christ rejoices when he sees and hears this. He gives them his peace. Where two are together in his name, there is he; and where he is, there the evil one cannot come.”
A large sarcophagus represents a scene of family worship: on the right, four men, with rolls in their hands, reading or singing; on the left, three women and a girl playing a lyre.
For the conclusion of a marriage, Ignatius646 required “the consent of the bishop, that it might be a marriage for God, and not for pleasure. All should be done to the glory of God.” In Tertullian’s time,647 as may be inferred from the passage just quoted, the solemnization of marriage was already at least a religious act, though not a proper sacrament, and was sealed by the celebration of the holy communion in presence of the congregation. The Montanists were disposed even to make this benediction of the church necessary to the validity of marriage among Christians. All noisy and wanton Jewish and heathen nuptial ceremonies, and at first also the crowning of the bride, were discarded; but the nuptial ring, as a symbol of union, was retained.
In the catacombs the marriage ceremony is frequently represented by the man and the woman standing side by side and joining hands in token of close union, as also on heathen documents. On a gilded glass of the fourth century, the couple join hands over a small nuptial altar, and around the figures are inscribed the words (of the priest): “May ye live in God.”648
MIXED MARRIAGES with heathens and also with heretics, were unanimously condemned by the voice of the church in agreement with the Mosaic legislation, unless formed before conversion, in which case they were considered valid.649 Tertullian even classes such marriages with adultery. What heathen, asks he, will let his wife attend the nightly meetings of the church, and the slandered supper of the Lord, take care of the sick even in the poorest hovels, kiss the chains of the martyrs in prison rise in the night for prayer, and show hospitality to strange brethren? Cyprian calls marriage with an unbeliever a prostitution of the members of Christ. The Council of Elvira in Spain (306) forbade such mixed marriages on pain of excommunication, but did not dissolve those already existing. We shall understand this strictness, if, to say nothing of the heathen marriage rites, and the wretchedly loose notions on chastity and conjugal fidelity, we consider the condition of those times, and the offences and temptations which met the Christian in the constant sight of images of the household gods, mythological pictures on the walls, the floor, and the furniture; in the libations at table; in short, at every step and turn in a pagan house.
SECOND MARRIAGE.—From the high view of marriage, and also from an ascetic over-estimate of celibacy, arose a very, prevalent aversion to re-marriage, particularly of widows. The Shepherd of Hermas allows this reunion indeed, but with the reservation, that continuance in single life earns great honor with the Lord. Athenagoras goes so far as to call the second marriage a “decent adultery.”650
The Montanists and Novatians condemned re-marriage, and made it a subject of discipline.
Tertullian came forward with the greatest decision, as advocate of monogamy against both successive and simultaneous polygamy.651 He thought thus to occupy the true middle ground between the ascetic Gnostics, who rejected marriage altogether, and the Catholics, who allowed more than one.652 In the earlier period of his life, when he drew the above picture of Christian marriage, before his adoption of Montanism., he already placed a high estimate on celibacy as a superior grade of Christian holiness, appealing to 1 Cor. 7:9 and advised at least his wife, in case of his death, not to marry again, especially with a heathen; but in his Montanistic writings, “De Exhortatione Castitatis” and “De Monogamia,” he repudiates second marriage from principle, and with fanatical zeal contends against it as unchristian, as an act of polygamy, nay of “stuprum” and “adulterium.” He opposes it with all sorts of acute argument; now, on the ground of an ideal conception of marriage as a spiritual union of two souls for time and eternity; now, from an opposite sensuous view; and again, on principles equally good against all marriage and in favor of celibacy. Thus, on the one hand, he argues, that the second marriage impairs the spiritual fellowship with the former partner, which should continue beyond the grave, which should show itself in daily intercessions and in yearly celebration of the day of death, and which hopes even for outward reunion after the resurrection.653 On the other hand, however, he places the essence of marriage in the communion of flesh,654 and regards it as a mere concession, which God makes to our sensuality, and which man therefore should not abuse by repetition. The ideal of the Christian life, with him, not only for the clergy, but the laity also, is celibacy. He lacks clear perception of the harmony of the moral and physical elements which constitutes the essence of marriage; and strongly as he elsewhere combats the Gnostic dualism, he here falls in with it in his depreciation of matter and corporeity, as necessarily incompatible with spirit. His treatment of the exegetical arguments of the defenders of second marriage is remarkable. The levirate law, he says, is peculiar to the Old Testament economy. To Rom. 7:2 he replies, that Paul speaks here from the position of the Mosaic law, which, according to the same passage is no longer binding on Christians. In 1 Cor. 7, the apostle allows second marriage only in his subjective, human judgment, and from regard to our sensuous infirmity; but in the same chapter (1 Cor 7:40) he recommends celibacy to all, and that on the authority of the Lord, adding here, that he also has the Holy Spirit, i.e. the principle, which is active in the new prophets of Montanism. The appeal to 1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:6, from which the right of laymen to second marriage was inferred, as the prohibition of it there related only to the clergy, he met with the doctrine of the universal priesthood of believers, which admitted them all both to the privileges and to the obligations of priests. But his reasoning always amounts in the end to this: that the state of original virgin purity, which has nothing at all to do with the sensual, is the best. The true chastity consists therefore not in the chaste spirit of married partners, but in the entire continence of “virgines” and “spadones.” The desire of posterity, he, contrary to the Old Testament, considers unworthy of a Christian, who, in fact, ought to break away entirely from the world, and renounce all inheritance in it. Such a morality, forbidding the same that it allows, and rigorously setting as an ideal what it must in reality abate at least for the mass of mankind, may be very far above the heathen level, but is still plainly foreign to the deeper substance and the world-sanctifying principle of Christianity.
The Catholic church, indeed, kept aloof from this Montanistic extravagance, and forbade second marriage only to the clergy (which the Greek church does to this day); yet she rather advised against it, and leaned very decidedly towards a preference for celibacy, as a higher grade of Christian morality.655
As to the relation of PARENTS and CHILDREN, Christianity exerted from the beginning a most salutary influence. It restrained the tyrannical power of the father. It taught the eternal value of children as heirs of the kingdom of heaven, and commenced the great work of education on a religious and moral basis. It resisted with all energy the exposition of children, who were then generally devoured by dogs and wild beasts, or, if found, trained up for slavery or doomed to a life of infamy. Several apologists, the author to the Epistle of Diognetus, Justin Martyr,656 Minutius Felix, Tertullian, and Arnobius speak with just indignation against this unnatural custom. Athenagoras declares abortion and exposure to be equal to murder.657 No heathen philosopher had advanced so far. Lactantius also puts exposure on a par with murder even of the worst kind, and admits no excuse on the ground of pity or poverty, since God provides for all his creatures.658 The Christian spirit of humanity gradually so penetrated the spirit of the age that the better emperors, from the time of Trajan, began to direct their attention to the diminution of these crying evils; but the best legal enactments would never have been able to eradicate them without the spiritual influence of the church. The institutions and donations of Trajan, Antonins Pius, Septimius Severus, and private persons, for the education of poor children, boys and girls, were approaches of the nobler heathen towards the genius of Christianity. Constantine proclaimed a law in 315 throughout Italy “to turn parents from using a parricidal hand on their new-born children, and to dispose their hearts to the best sentiments.” The Christian fathers, councils, emperors, and lawgivers united their efforts to uproot this monstrous evil and to banish it from the civilized world.659
§ 100. Brotherly Love, and Love for Enemies.
SCHAUBACH: Das Verhältniss der Moral des classischen Alterthums zur christlichen, beleuchtet durch vergleichende Erörterung der Lehre von der Feindesliebe, in the “Studien und Kritiken” for 1851, p. 59–121. Also the works of SCHMIDT, CHASTEL, UHLHORN, etc., quoted at § 88 above.
It is generally admitted, that selfishness was the soul of heathen morality. The great men of antiquity rose above its sordid forms, love of gain and love of pleasure, but were the more under the power of ambition and love of fame. It was for fame that Miltiades and Themistocles fought against the Persians; that Alexander set out on his tour of conquest; that Herodotus wrote his history, that Pindar sang his odes, that Sophocles composed his tragedies, that Demosthenes delivered his orations, that Phidias sculptured his Zeus. Fame was set forth in the Olympian games as the highest object of life; fame was held up by Aeschylus as the last comfort of the suffering; fame was declared by Cicero, before a large assembly, the ruling passion of the very best of men.660 Even the much-lauded patriotism of the heroes of ancient Greece and Rome was only an enlarged egotism. In the catalogue of classical virtues we look in vain for the two fundamental and cardinal virtues, love and humility. The very word which corresponds in Greek to humility661 signifies generally, in classical usage, a mean, abject mind. The noblest and purest form of love known to the heathen moralist is friendship, which Cicero praises as the highest good next to wisdom. But friendship itself rested, as was freely admitted, on a utilitarian, that is, on an egotistic basis, and was only possible among persons of equal or similar rank in society. For the stranger, the barbarian, and the enemy, the Greek and Roman knew no love, but only contempt and hatred. The jus talionis, the return of evil for evil, was universally acknowledged throughout the heathen world as a just principle and maxim, in direct opposition to the plainest injunctions of the New Testament.662 We must offend those who offend us, says Aeschylus.663 Not to take revenge was regarded as a sign of weakness and cowardice. To return evil for good is devilish; to return good for good is human and common to all religions; to return good for evil is Christlike and divine, and only possible in the Christian religion.
On the other hand, however, we should suppose that every Christian virtue must find some basis in the noblest moral instincts and aspirations of nature; since Christianity is not against nature, but simply above it and intended for it. Thus we may regard the liberality, benevolence, humanity and magnanimity which we meet with in heathen antiquity, as an approximation to, and preparation for, the Christian virtue of charity. The better schools of moralists rose more or less above the popular approval of hatred of the enemy, wrath and revenge. Aristotle and the Peripatetics, without condemning this passion as wrong in itself, enjoined at least moderation in its exercise. The Stoics went further, and