Constantine was now obliged to look more closely into the nature of the dispute. He began to understand that the question was not one of trifling, but of the highest and most essential, importance; and resolved to convoke an assembly of bishops, in order to establish the true doctrine, and to allay for ever, as he vainly hoped, this propensity to hostile disputation. Everything necessary for their journey was provided at the public charge, as if it had been an affair of State.
In the month of June, A.D. 325, the first general council of the church assembled at Nice in Bithynia. About three hundred and eighteen bishops were present, besides a very large number of priests and deacons. "The flower of the ministers of God," as Eusebius says, "from all the churches which abound in Europe, Africa and Asia, now met together." The spectacle was altogether new; and surely to none more so than to the bishops themselves. Not many years had elapsed since they had been marked as the objects of the most cruel persecution. They had been chosen on account of their eminence, as the peculiar victims of the exterminating policy of the government. Many of them bore in their bodies the marks of their sufferings for Christ. They had known what it was to be driven into exile; to work in the mines; to be exposed to every kind of humiliation and insult; but now all was changed, so changed, that they could scarcely believe that it was a reality and not a vision. The palace gates were thrown open to them, and the Emperor of the world acted as moderator of the assembly.
Nothing could so confirm and declare to the world the sad fall of the church, and her subjection to the State, as the place which the Emperor had in these councils. He did not arrive at Nice till the 3rd of July. On the following day the bishops assembled in the hall of the palace, which had been prepared for the purpose. We learn from Eusebius, that the assembly sat in profound silence, while the great officers of State and other dignified persons entered the hall, and awaited in trembling expectation the appearance of the Emperor. Constantine at length entered; he was splendidly attired: the eyes of the bishops were dazzled by the gold and precious stones upon his raiment. The whole assembly rose to do him honor. He advanced to a golden seat prepared for him, and there stood, in respectful deference to the spiritual dignitaries, till he was requested to sit down. After a hymn of praise was sung, he delivered an exhortation on the importance of peace and union. The council sat for rather more than two months; and Constantine seems to have been present during the greater part of the sittings, listening with patience, and conversing freely with the different prelates.
The celebrated confession of faith usually called "The Nicene Creed," was the result of the long and solemn deliberations of the assembly. They decided against the Arian opinions, and firmly maintained the doctrines of the holy Trinity, of the true Godhead of Christ, and of His oneness with the Father in power and glory. Arius himself was brought before the council, and questioned as to his faith and doctrine; he did not hesitate to repeat, as his belief, the false doctrines which had destroyed the peace of the church. The bishops, when he was advancing his blasphemies, with one accord stopped their ears, and cried out that such impious opinions were worthy of anathema together with their author. St. Athanasius, although at the time but a deacon, drew the attention of the whole council by his zeal in defense of the true faith, and by his penetration in unravelling and laying open the artifices of the heretics. But more of the noble Athanasius by-and-by.
This famous creed was subscribed by all the bishops present, with the exception of a few Arians. The decision of the council having been laid before Constantine, he at once recognised in the unanimous consent of the council the work of God, and received it with reverence, declaring that all those persons should be banished who refused to submit to it. The Arians, hearing this, through fear subscribed the faith laid down by the council. They thus laid themselves open to the charge of being dishonest men. Two bishops only, Secundus and Theonas, both Egyptians, continued to adhere to Arius; and they were banished with him to Illyria. Eusebius of Nicomedia, and Theognis of Nice, were condemned about three months later, and sentenced by the Emperor to banishment. Severe penalties were now denounced against the followers of Arius: all his books were sentenced to be burnt; and it was even made a capital offense to conceal any of his writings. Their labors being completed, the bishops dispersed to their respective provinces. Besides the solemn declaration of their opinion of the doctrine in question, they finally set at rest the question respecting the celebration of Easter; and settled some other matters which were brought before them.
As the Emperor had no independent judgment of his own in ecclesiastical matters, and certainly no spiritual discernment into these doctrinal controversies, the continuance of his favor could not be relied upon. In little more than two years his mind was completely changed. But these two years were eventful in the domestic history of Constantine, in what was much more serious than a change of mind as to Arianism. The same year that he convened the council of Nice, he gave private orders for the execution of Crispus, his eldest son, and for the suffocation of his wife, Fausta, in a hot bath, who had been married to him for about twenty years. History can find no better reasons for these deeds of darkness than a mean and an unworthy jealousy. The wisdom and bravery of Crispus, in the final overthrow of Licinius, is said to have excited his father's jealousy, and this was probably fomented by Fausta, who was his stepmother. Knowing that he was bitterly reproached for his cruelty to his own son, he ordered the death of Fausta in his remorse and misery. As we have expressed a very decided judgment against the unhallowed nature of the church's connection with the State, we have said this much of the private life of the Emperor, so that the reader may judge as to the fitness, or rather, the unfitness, of one so polluted with blood, to sit as president in a christian council. From that day to this the state church has been exposed to the same defilement, in the person either of the sovereign or the royal commissioner.
Constantia, the widow of Licinius, and sister of Constantine, possessed great influence with her brother. She sympathized with the Arians, and was under their influence. On her deathbed in 327, she succeeded in convincing her brother that injustice had been done to Arius, and prevailed on him to invite Arius to his court. He did so, and Arius appeared, presenting to the Emperor a confession of his faith. He expressed in a general way his belief in the doctrine of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and besought the Emperor to put a stop to idle speculations, so that schism might be healed, and all, united in one, might pray for the peaceable reign of the Emperor, and for his whole family. By his plausible confession, and his fair speeches, he gained his point. Constantine expressed himself satisfied, and Arius and his followers, in turn, stood high in the imperial favor. The banished ones were recalled. A breath of court air changed the outward aspect of the whole church. The Arian party had now full possession of the Emperor's weighty influence, and they hastened to use it.
In the council of Nice Athanasius had born a distinguished part; his zeal and abilities designated him at once as the head of the orthodox party, and as the most powerful antagonist of the Arians. On the death of Alexander, in the year 326, he was elevated to the see of Alexandria by the universal voice of his brethren. He was then only thirty years of age, and knowing something of the dangers as well as the honors of the office, he would have preferred a less responsible position; but he yielded to the earnest desires of an affectionate congregation. He held the see for nearly half a century. His long life was devoted to the service of the Lord and His truth. He continued stedfast in the faith, and inflexible in his purpose, according to the noble stand which he made in the council of Nice, down to his latest hour. The divinity of Christ was to him no mere speculative opinion, but the source and strength of his whole christian life. And nowhere else is it to be found by any one; as the apostle assures us.
"And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life; and this life is in His Son. He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life." (1Jo 5:11-12.)
This life dwells in the only-begotten Son of the Father. He is "the eternal life." And this life, to the praise of the glory of God's grace, is given to all who believe in the true Christ of God. In receiving Christ, we receive eternal life, and become the sons of God — heirs of God — and joint heirs with Christ. This life is not the property of any mere creature, however exalted. The holy angels have a most blessed and an unceasing existence by the power of God; but the Christian has eternal life through faith in Christ, by the grace of God. Nothing could be more fatal to the well-being of the human soul than the doctrine of Arius. But to return to our history.
While the advancement of Athanasius to the see of Alexandria gave great joy and hope to his friends, it filled his enemies with the bitterest resentment. They now saw the great leader of the Catholics the bishop of that church from which Arius had been expelled; and that he was supported by the affections of his people and by a hundred bishops who owned allegiance to the great see of Alexandria. They knew his power and indefatigable zeal in defense of the decrees of the Nicene Council; and might well judge, that if his influence had been so great when in a private capacity, what might now be expected when he was placed in so eminent a station? Wherefore, they laid their plans and united their powers to overthrow him.
Eusebius, of Nicomedia, first resorted to apparently friendly measures with Athanasius, for the purpose of inducing him to re-admit Arius to the fellowship of the church; but, failing completely in this, he influenced the Emperor to command him. An imperial mandate was issued to receive Arius and all his friends who were willing to connect themselves once more with the catholic church; and informing him that, unless he did so, he should be deposed from his station, and sent into exile. Athanasius, however, was not to be intimidated by imperial edicts, but firmly replied, that he could not acknowledge persons who had been condemned by a decree of the whole church. "Constantine now found to his astonishment," says Milman, "that an imperial edict — which would have been obeyed in trembling submission from one end of the Roman empire to the other, even if he had enacted a complete political revolution, or endangered the property and privileges of thousands — was received with deliberate and steady disregard by a single christian bishop. During two reigns, Athanasius contested the authority of the Emperor." He endured persecution, calumny, exile; his life was frequently endangered in defense of the one great and fundamental truth — the Godhead of the blessed Lord; he confronted martyrdom, not for the broad distinction between Christianity and heathenism, but for that one central doctrine of the christian faith.
A succession of complaints against Athanasius was carried to the Emperor by the Arian, or more properly the Eusebian, party. But it would be outside our purpose to go into details: still we must trace the silver line a little farther in this noble and faithful witness.
The most weighty charge was, that Athanasius had sent a sum of money to a person in Egypt, to aid him in the prosecution of a design of conspiracy against the Emperor. He was ordered to appear and answer the charge. The prelate obeyed and stood before him. But the personal appearance of Athanasius, a man of remarkable power over the minds of others, seems for the moment to have overawed the soul of Constantine. The frivolous and groundless accusations were triumphantly refuted by Athanasius, before a tribunal of his enemies, and the unblemished virtue of his character undeniably established. And such was the effect of the presence of Athanasius on the Emperor, that he styled him a man of God, and considered his enemies to be the authors of the disturbances and divisions; but this impression was of short duration, as he continued to be governed by the Eusebian party.
In 334 Athanasius was summoned to appear before a council at Caesarea. He refused on the ground that the tribunal was composed of his enemies. In the following year he was cited before another council to be held at Tyre by imperial authority; which he attended. Upwards of a hundred bishops were present; a lay commission of the Emperor directed their proceedings. A multitude of charges were brought against the undaunted prelate; but the darkest, and the only one we will notice, was the twofold crime of magic and murder. It was said that he had killed Arsenius, a Miletian bishop — had cut off one of his hands, and had used it for magical purposes; the hand was produced. But Athanasius was prepared for the charge. The God of truth was with him. He calmly asked whether those present were acquainted with Arsenius? He had been well known to many. A man was suddenly brought into the court, with his whole person folded in his mantle. Athanasius first uncovered the head. He was at once recognized as the murdered Arsenius. His hands were next uncovered; and on examination he was proved to be Arsenius, alive, unmutilated. The Arian party had done their utmost to conceal Arsenius, but the Lord was with His guiltless servant, and the friends of Athanasius succeeded in discovering him. The malice of the unprincipled Arians was again exposed, and the innocence of Athanasius triumphantly vindicated.
But the implacable enemies of the bishop were yet fruitful in their accusations against him. Once more he was commanded to appear in Constantinople, and to answer for himself in the imperial presence.
The old charges on this occasion were dropped, but a new one was skilfully chosen, with the view of arousing the jealousy of the Emperor. They asserted that Athanasius had threatened to stop the sailing of the vessels laden with corn from the port of Alexandria to Constantinople. By this means a famine would be produced in the new capital. This touched the pride of the Emperor; and whether from belief of the charge, or from a wish to remove so influential a person, he banished him to Treves in Gaul. The injustice of the sentence is unquestionable.
Neither Constantine nor Arius long survived the exile of Athanasius. Arius subscribed an orthodox creed; Constantine accepted his confession. He sent for Alexander, bishop of Constantinople, and told him that Arius must be received into communion on the following day, which was Sunday. Alexander, who had almost completed a hundred years, was greatly distressed by the Emperor's orders. He entered the church, and prayed earnestly that the Lord would prevent such a profanation. On the evening of the same day Arius was talking lightly, and in a triumphant tone, of the ceremonies appointed for the morrow. But the Lord had ordered otherwise; He had heard the prayer of His aged servant; and that night the great herestarch died. His end is related with circumstances which recall to mind that of the traitor Judas. What effect the event had on Constantine we are not informed; but he died soon after in his sixty-fourth year.
Before proceeding farther with our general history, we shall do well to pause for a moment, and consider the bearings of the great changes which have taken place, both in the position of the church and the world, during the reign of Constantine the Great. It would not be too much to say, that the church has passed through the most important crisis of her history; and that the downfall of idolatry may be considered as the most important event in the whole history of the world. From a period shortly after the flood, idolatry had prevailed among the nations of the earth, and Satan, by his craft, had been the object of worship. But the whole system of idolatry was doomed throughout the Roman earth, if not finally overthrown, by Constantine; it had, at any rate, received its deadly wound.
The church, doubtless, lost much by her union with the State. She no longer existed as a separate community, and was no longer governed exclusively by the will of Christ. She had surrendered her independence, lost her heavenly character, and become inseparably identified with the passions and interests of the ruling power. All this was sad in the extreme, and the fruit of her own unbelief. But, on the other hand, the world gained immensely by the change. This must not be overlooked in our lamentations over the failure of the church. The standard of the cross was now raised all over the empire; Christ was publicly proclaimed as the only Savior of mankind; and the holy scriptures acknowledged to be the word of God, the only safe and certain guide to eternal blessedness. The professing church was no doubt in a low unspiritual state, before she was connected with the civil power, so that she may have thought more of her own ease than of her mission of blessing to others; nevertheless, God could work by means of these new opportunities, and hasten the disappearance from the face of the Roman world of the fearful abominations of idolatry.
The general legislation of Constantine bears evidence of the silent under-working of Christian principles; and the effect of these humane laws would be felt far beyond the immediate circle of the christian community.
He enacted laws for the better observance of Sunday; against the sale of infants for slaves, which was common among the heathen; and also against child-stealing for the purpose of selling them; with many other laws, both of a social and moral character, which are given in the histories already noted. But the one grand all-influential event of his reign was the casting down of the idols, and the lifting up of Christ. The Ethiopians and Iberians are said to have been converted to Christianity during his reign.
Constantine the Great was succeeded by his three sons, Constantine, Constantius, and Constans. They had been educated in the faith of the gospel, and had been named Caesars by their father, and on his death they divided the empire among them. Constantine obtained Gaul, Spain, and Britain; Constantius, the Asiatic provinces, with the capital, Constantinople; and Constans held Italy and Africa. The beginning of the new reign was characterized — as was usual in those times — by killing the relatives who might one day prove rivals to the throne; but along with the old and usual political jealousies and hostilities, a new element now appears — that of religious controversy.
The eldest son, Constantine, was favorable to the catholics, and signalized the commencement of his reign by recalling Athanasius, and replacing him in his see at Alexandria. But in 340 Constantine was killed in an invasion of Italy; and Constans took possession of his brother's dominions, and thus became the sovereign of two-thirds of the empire. He was favorable to the decisions of the Nicene Council, and adhered with firmness to the cause of Athanasius. Constantius, his Empress, and court, were partial to Arianism. And thus the religious war began between the two brothers — between the East and the West — and was carried on without either justice or humanity, to say nothing of the peaceful spirit of Christianity. Constantius, like his father, interfered much in the affairs of the church; he pretended to be a theologian, and throughout his reign the empire was incessantly agitated by religious controversy. The councils became so frequent, that the public posting establishments were constantly employed by the continual travelling of the bishops; on both sides councils were assembled to oppose councils. But as the principal events of the period, as well as the silver line of God's grace, are connected with Athanasius, we will return to his history.
After a banishment of two years and four months Athanasius was restored to his diocese by the younger Constantine, where he was received with a joyful welcome by his flock. But the death of that prince exposed Athanasius to a second persecution. Constantius, who is described as a vain but weak man, soon became the secret accomplice of the Eusebians. In the end of 340, or beginning of 341, a council met at Antioch for the dedication of a splendid church which had been founded by Constantine the elder. The number of bishops is said to have been about ninety-seven, of whom forty were Eusebians. Amongst the number of canons which were passed, it was decided, and with some appearance of equity, that a bishop deposed by a synod should not resume his episcopal functions till he had been absolved by the judgment of another synod equal in authority. This law was evidently passed with a special reference to the case of Athanasius; and the council pronounced, or rather confirmed, his degradation. Gregory, a Cappadocian, a man of a violent character, was appointed to the see, and Philagrius, the prefect of Egypt, was instructed to support the new primate with the civil and military powers of the province. Athanasius being the favorite of the people, they refused to have a bishop thrust upon them by the Emperor: scenes of disorder, outrage, and profanation followed. "Violence was found necessary to support iniquity," says Milner, "and an Arian prince was obliged to tread in the steps of his pagan predecessors, to support what he called the church."
Athanasius, oppressed by the Asiatic prelates, withdrew from Alexandria, and passed three years in Rome. The Roman pontiff, Julius, with a synod of fifty Italian bishops, pronounced him innocent, and confirmed to him the communion of the church. No fewer than five creeds had been drawn up by the Eastern bishops in assemblies convened at Antioch between 341 and 345, with the view of concealing their real opinions; but not one of them was admitted to be free from an Arian element, though the more offensive positions of Arianism were professedly condemned. The two Emperors, Constantius and Constans, now became anxious to heal the breach which existed between the Eastern and the Western churches; and accordingly they summoned a council to meet at Sardica, in Illyria, A.D. 347, to decide the disputed points. Ninety-four bishops of the West, twenty-one of the East, having assembled, and duly considered the matter on both sides, decided in favor of Athanasius: the orthodox party restoring the persecuted primate of Alexandria, and condemning all who opposed him as the enemies of the truth. In the meantime the intruder, Gregory, died, and Athanasius, on his return to Alexandria, after an exile of eight years, was received with universal rejoicing. "The entrance of the archbishop into his capital," says one, "was a triumphal procession: absence and persecution had endeared him to the Alexandrians; and his fame was diffused from Ethiopia to Britain over the whole extent of the Christian world."
After the death of Constans, the friend and protector of Athanasius, in 350, the cowardly Constantius felt that the time was now come to avenge his private injuries against Athanasius, who had no longer Constans to defend him. But how to accomplish his object was the difficulty. Had he decreed the death of the most eminent citizen, the cruel order would have been executed without any hesitation; but the condemnation and death of a popular bishop must be brought about with caution, delay, and some appearance of justice. The Arians set to work; they renewed their machinations; more councils were convened.
In the year 353 a synod was held at Arles; and in 355 another met at Milan. Upwards of three hundred bishops were present at the latter. The sessions of the council were held in the palace, Constantius and his guards being present. The condemnation of Athanasius was artfully represented as the only measure which could restore the peace and union of the catholic church. But the friends of the primate were true to their leader and the cause of truth. They assured the Emperor, in the most manly and christian spirit, that neither the hope of his favor, nor the fear of his displeasure, would prevail on them to join in the condemnation of an absent, an innocent, an honored servant of Christ. The contest was long and obstinate; the interest excited was intense, and the eyes of the whole empire became fixed on a single bishop. But the Arian Emperor was impatient, and before the council of Milan was dissolved, the archbishop of Alexandria had been solemnly condemned and deposed. A general persecution was directed against all who favored him, and also for the purpose of enforcing conformity to the Emperor's opinion. And so sharp did this persecution become, that the orthodox party raised the cry, that the days of Nero and of Decius had returned. Athanasius himself found a refuge in the deserts of Egypt.
In the year 361 Constantius, the patron of the Arians, died. Like his father, he delayed his baptism till a short time before his death. The prosperous days of the Arians were now ended.
Julian, commonly called the Apostate, succeeded to the throne, and probably to show his utter indifference to the theological question in dispute, he ordered the restoration of the bishops whom Constantius had banished. After a brief reign of twenty-two months, and a vain attempt to revive heathenism, he died suddenly of a wound in the breast from a Persian arrow.
Jovian, who immediately succeeded Julian to the throne, professed Christianity. He is the first of the Roman Emperors who gave anything like clear evidence that he really loved the truth as it is in Jesus. He seems to have been a sincere Christian before he came to the throne, as he told the apostate Julian that he would rather quit the service than his religion; nevertheless Julian valued him, and kept him near his person until his death. The army declared itself Christian; the Labarum, which had been thrown aside during the reign of Julian, was again displayed at its head. Jovian, however, had learnt from the preceding times that religion could not be advanced by outward force. Hence he allowed full toleration to his pagan subjects; and, with respect to the divisions among Christians, he declared that he would molest no one on account of religion, but would love all who studied the peace and welfare of the church of God. Athanasius, on hearing of the death of Julian, returned to Alexandria, to the agreeable surprise and joy of his people. Jovian wrote to Athanasius, confirming him in his office, and inviting him to his court. The bishop complied; the Emperor desired instruction and advice; by personal intercourse he gained an influence over Jovian which his enemies in vain attempted to disturb. But the reign of this christian prince lasted only about eight months. He was found dead in his bed, on February 17th, 364, having been suffocated, as was supposed, by charcoal.
Valentinian and Valens. Jovian was succeeded by two brothers — Valentinian and Valens; the former governed in the West, the latter in the East. In the affairs of the church Valentinian is said to have followed the plan of Jovian. He declined all interference in questions of doctrines, but adhered firmly to the Nicene faith. As a soldier and a statesman he was possessed of many great abilities. Both brothers are said to have exposed themselves to danger by the profession of Christianity in the reign of Julian; but Valens was afterwards won over to Arianism by his wife, who persuaded him to receive baptism from the Arian bishop of Constantinople. It is said that the bishop exacted of him an oath to persecute the catholics. Be this as it may, it is certain that soon after his baptism he manifested great zeal in favor of the Arians, and bitterly persecuted the ecclesiastics for their adherence to the Nicene faith, and the exercise of their influence on its behalf.
Under the edict of Valens, A.D. 367, Athanasius was once more attacked by the Arians — the enemies of christian piety; Tattan, governor of Alexandria, attempted to drive him out of the city; but the feeling of the people was so strong in favor of the venerable bishop, that he dared not for some time to execute his orders. In the meantime, Athanasius, knowing what was near at hand, quietly retired, and remained for four months concealed in his father's sepulcher. This was the fourth time he had fled from Alexandria. Valens, however, from the dread he seems to have had of the people, recalled him, and permitted him, without any further hindrance, to prosecute his pastoral labors, until A.D. 373, when he was summoned from his work on earth to his rest in heaven. Valens perished in a battle with the Goths in the year 378, after having reigned fourteen years.
We are disposed to believe that, under the blessing of God, he was the means of preserving the church from the Arian heresy, which threatened to extinguish from Christianity both the name and the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ. The enemy aimed at nothing short of a Christless system, which might ere long issue in an utter abandonment of Christianity. But the Nicene council was used of God to overthrow his wicked devices. The assertion of the Godhead of Christ and of the Holy Ghost as equal with God the Father, was greatly blessed of God then, and has been from that day even until now. Though the church had been unfaithful, and drifted into the world, "even where Satan's seat is," the Lord in mercy raised up a great testimony to His holy name, and to the faith of His saints. Historians, both civil and ecclesiastical, bear the most honorable testimony to the ability, activity, constancy, self-denial, and unwearied zeal of Athanasius in the defense of the great doctrine of the holy Trinity. "Thou holdest fast My name, and hast not denied My faith," are words that refer, we doubt not, to the faithfulness of Athanasius and his friends, as also to the faithful in other times.
The overcomers spoken of in the address were also there, without doubt; but it is not permitted of the Lord that they should be seen or recorded by the historian. They were God's hidden ones who were nourished on the hidden manna. They will have a place of great nearness to the Lord in the glory.
"To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it." (Re 2:17.)
Valentinian was succeeded by his son, Gratian, in 375. He was then only sixteen years of age. He admitted as a nominal colleague his half-brother, the younger Valentinian; and soon after he chose Theodosius as an active colleague, on whom he bestowed the sovereignty of the East. Graftan had been educated in the Christian faith, and gave evidence of being a true believer. He was the first of the Roman Emperors who refused the title and robe of high priest of the ancient religion. How could a Christian, he said, be the high priest of idolatry? It is an abomination to the Lord. Thus we see in the early piety of this young prince the blessed effects of the testimony of the faithful. What a new and strange thing in me; a pious prince to ascend the throne of Rothe Caesars at the age of sixteen! But he was humble as well as pious.
Being conscious of his own ignorance in divine things, he wrote to Ambrose, bishop of Milan, to visit him. "Come," he said, "that you may teach the doctrines of salvation to one who truly believes; not that we may study for contention, but that the revelation of God may dwell more intimately in my heart." Ambrose answered him in an ecstasy of satisfaction: "Most christian prince," he says, "modesty, not want of affection, has hitherto prevented me from waiting upon you. If, however, I was not with you personally, I have been present with my prayers, in which consists still more the duty of a pastor."
The young Emperor was generally popular; but his attachment to the orthodox clergy, the time he spent in their company, the influence they gained over him (especially Ambrose) exposed him to the contempt of the more warlike part of his subjects. The frontiers were sorely pressed at this time by the barbarians, but Gratian was unable to undertake the conduct of a war against them. Maximus, taking advantage of the disaffection of the army, raised the standard of revolt. Graftan, seeing the turn things had taken, fled, with about three hundred horse, but was overpowered and killed at Lyons in the year 383. Maximus, the usurper and assassin, placed himself on the throne of the West. He was afterwards overthrown and slain by Theodosius, and the younger Valentinian placed upon the throne of his father.
The measure of our interest in the history of the Roman Emperors must be proportionate to their acknowledgement of the truth, and their treatment of Christians. Did we not seek to discern God's hand in their government, it would be wearisome and profitless, at this distant period, to examine what remains of them. But to see God's hand, and to hear His voice, and to trace the silver line of His grace, throughout those rude times, keeps us in company with Himself, and our experience is increased. But almost everything depends, as to service to God, or blessing to ourselves, in the motive or object with which we study the history of the church, and that which effects is. According to this principle of estimation, Theodosius claims an earnest and careful study. He was God's minister, as well as the Roman Emperor; was used of Him to subdue Arianism in the East, and to abolish the worship of idols throughout the Roman world. Idolatry is the boldest sin of man, and can never be exceeded until
"that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God." (2Th 2:3-4.)
The full expression of this blasphemy is still future, and will be the signal for immediate judgment, and the dawn of the millennial day.
But the zeal of Theodosius was not merely negative. He supported Christianity, according to his light, more vigorously than any of his predecessors. He completed what Constantine commenced, and far surpassed him in christian zeal and earnestness. Soon after his baptism he assembled a council, which met at Constantinople on May 2nd, 381. The principal objects for which this council was convoked were the following: — To give greater fullness and definiteness to the Nicene creed; to condemn heresies, such as those of the Arians, Eunomians, Eudoxians, Sabellians, Apollinarians, and others; and to take measures for the union of the church.
Most of our readers, even the youngest, have heard of "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" — the fourth great world-empire spoken of by the prophet Daniel, and by St. John in the Apocalypse. It had been on the decline for some time, and was rapidly approaching its fall, when Theodosius was called to the throne. The frontiers were menaced on all sides by the barbarians, who dwelt immediately outside the Roman earth. "On the shores of each of the great rivers which bounded the empire," says Dean Milman, "appeared a host of menacing invaders. The Persians, the Armenians, the Iberians, were prepared to pass the Euphrates or the eastern frontier; the Danube had already afforded a passage to the Goths; behind them were the Huns, in still more formidable and multiplying swarms; the Franks and the rest of the German nations were crowding to the Rhine." This frightful array of barbaric invasion will show the reader at a glance the then position of the fourth empire; and that it is as easy for God to break in pieces the iron, as the brass, the silver, or the gold.
Within the limits of the Roman earth idolatry still existed, and its worship was undisturbed. Its thousands of temples, in all their ancient grandeur and imposing ceremony, covered the land. Scarcely could the Christian turn anywhere without seeing a temple and inhaling the incense offered to idols. Christianity had only been raised to an equal toleration. Arianism and semi-Arianism, in their many forms, greatly prevailed. In Constantinople and the East they were supreme. Other heresies abounded. Such was the state of things, both within and without the empire, on the accession of Theodosius. But for the details of his civil history, we must refer the reader to the authors already noted. We would only add, that he was used of God in arresting for a time the progress of invasion; in demolishing the images and some of the temples of heathen worship; in abolishing idolatry; in suppressing superstition; in causing the decisions of the Nicene council to prevail everywhere; and in giving triumph and predominance to the profession of Christianity.
We will now glance at some of the leading events in the history of the great Theodosius. In the circumstances of these events will be found the best commentary on the life of the Emperor, the power of the priesthood, and the character of the times.
Theodosius was a Spaniard. Christianity, at an early period, had been established in the Peninsula. It was famous for its firm adherence to the Athanasian doctrines throughout the Trinitarian controversy. Hosius, a Spanish bishop, was president of the Nicene council. Towards the end of the first year of his reign, Theodosius was admonished by a serious illness not to delay his baptism, as the practice then was. He sent for the bishop of Thessalonica and was at once baptised. Some say that he was the first of the Emperors baptised in the full name of the holy Trinity. His admission to the church was immediately followed by an edict which proclaimed his own faith, and prescribed the religion of his subjects. "It is our pleasure that all the nations that are governed by our clemency and moderation, should stedfastly adhere to the religion which was taught by St. Peter to the Romans... According to the discipline of the apostles, and the doctrine of the gospel, let us believe the sole deity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, under an equal majesty, and a pious Trinity... Beside the condemnation of divine justice they must expect to suffer the severe penalties which our authority, guided by heavenly wisdom, shall think proper to inflict upon them."
Such was the stern and uncompromising orthodoxy of Theodosius. Still, however mistaken, he believed it was his duty so to rule as a Christian Emperor, and the bishops that he consulted were more inclined to increase than to soften its severity. On one occasion his sense of justice determined him to order some Christians to rebuild at their own expense a Jewish synagogue, which, in a tumult, had been pulled down. But the vigorous bishop of Milan interfered and prevailed on him to set aside the sentence, on the ground that it was not right for Christians to build a Jewish synagogue. Herein the bishop evidently failed in a matter of common justice. He was less righteous than his imperial master.
The most prominent defect in the character of Theodosius was a proneness to violent anger; yet he could be softened down and moved to be most merciful after great provocation, if properly appealed to. We have a remarkable instance of this in his forgiving the people of Antioch. It happened in this way:
In the year 387 the inhabitants became impatient on account of a tax which the Emperor had imposed upon them; and, as they were haughtily treated by the rulers, to whom they had respectfully applied for relief, a great tumult arose in the city. The statues of the imperial family were thrown down and treated with contempt. But, a company of soldiers immediately appearing, the sedition was suppressed. The governor of the province, according to the duty of his office, dispatched a faithful narrative of the whole transaction to the Emperor. But as eight hundred miles lay between Antioch and Constantinople, weeks must elapse before an answer could be received. This gave the Antiochtlans leisure to reflect on the nature and consequences of their crime. They were greatly and constantly agitated with hopes and fears, as may be well supposed. They knew their crime was a serious one, but they had confessed it to Flavian their bishop, and to other influential persons, with every assurance of genuine repentance. At length, twenty-four days after the sedition, the imperial commissioners arrived, bearing the will of the Emperor, and the sentence of Antioch. The following imperial mandate will show the reader how much depended on the will or temper of a single man in those times.
Antioch, the metropolis of the East, was degraded from the rank of a city; stripped of its lands, its privileges, and its revenues; it was subjected, under the humiliating denomination of a village, to the jurisdiction of Laodicea. The baths, the circus, and the theaters were shut; and, that every source of plenty and pleasure might at the same time be intercepted, the distribution of corn was abolished. The commissioners then proceeded to inquire into the guilt of individuals. The noblest and most wealthy of the citizens of Antioch appeared before them in chains; the examination was assisted by the use of torture, and their sentence was pronounced, or suspended, according to the judgment of these extraordinary magistrates. The houses of the criminals were exposed to sale, their wives and children were suddenly reduced from affluence and luxury to the most abject distress; and a bloody execution was expected to close the horrors of the day, which the eloquent Chrysostom has represented as a lively image of the final judgment of the world. But God, who has the hearts of all men in His hand, and in the remembrance of what Antioch had been in the early days of the church, moved the ministers of Theodosius to pity. They are said to have shed tears over the calamities of the people; and they listened with reverence to the pressing entreaties of the monks and hermits, who descended in swarms from the mountains. The execution of the sentence was suspended, and it was agreed that one of the commissioners should remain at Antioch, while the other returned with all possible speed to Constantinople.
The exasperated rage of Theodosius had cooled down. The deputies of the distressed people obtained a favorable audience. The hand of the Lord was in it: He had heard their cry. Grace triumphed in Theodosius. A free and general pardon was granted to the city and citizens of Antioch; the prison doors were thrown open; and senators, who despaired of their lives, recovered the possession of their houses and estates; and the capital of the East was restored to the enjoyment of her ancient dignity and splendor.
Theodosius condescended to praise and reward the bishop of Antioch and others who had generously interceded for their distressed brethren; and confessed, that if the exercise of justice is the most important duty, the indulgence of mercy is the most exquisite pleasure, of a sovereign.
The history of the tumult and massacre at Thessalonica, in 390, graves yet deeper lines in the character of Theodosius. In studying this period of his life, we are reminded of David, the king of Israel. In this sorrowful affair the enemy gained a great advantage over the christian Emperor; but God overruled it for the deeper blessing of his soul.
Botheric, commander in chief of the district, and several of his principal officers, were killed by the populace on the occasion of a chariot-race. A favorite charioteer had been thrown into prison for a notorious crime, and, consequently, was absent on the day of the games. The populace unreasonably demanded his liberty; Botheric refused, and thus the tumult was raised and the dreadful consequences followed. The news exasperated the Emperor, and he ordered the sword to be let loose upon them. Ambrose interceded, and Theodosius promised to pardon the Thessalonians. His military' advisers, however, artfully insisted on the heinous character of the crime, and procured an order to punish the offenders; which was carefully kept secret from the bishop. The soldiers attacked the people indiscriminately when assembled in the circus, and thousands were slain, to avenge the death of their officers.
The mind of Ambrose was filled with horror and anguish on hearing of this massacre. As the servant of God he rises to the place of separation from evil, even in his imperial master. He retired into the country to indulge his grief, and to avoid the presence of the Emperor. But he wrote a letter to him, in which he set before him, in the most solemn manner, his fearful guilt; and assuring him that he could not be allowed to enter the church of Milan until satisfied of the genuineness of his repentance. The Emperor, by this time, was deeply affected by the reproaches of his own conscience, and by those of his spiritual father. He bitterly bewailed the consequences of his rash fury in substituting barbarity for justice; and proceeded to perform his devotions in the church of Milan. But Ambrose met him at the porch, and, laying hold of his robe, desired him to withdraw as a man stained with innocent blood. The Emperor assured Ambrose of his contrition; but he was told that private regrets were insufficient to expiate public offenses. The Emperor referred to David, a man after God's own heart. "You have imitated him in his crime, imitate him in his repentance," was the reply of the undaunted bishop.
The Emperor submitted to the priest. For eight months he remained in penitential seclusion; laying aside all his imperial ornaments, until at the Christmas season he presented himself before the archbishop, and humbly entreated re-admission into the church. "I weep," said he, "that the temple of God, and consequently heaven, is shut from me, which is open to slaves and beggars." Ambrose was firm, and required some practical fruit of his repentance. He demanded that in future the execution of capital punishment should be deferred until thirty days after the sentence, in order that the ill effects of intemperate anger might be prevented. The Emperor readily agreed, and was then allowed to enter the church. The scene which followed was overwhelming. The Emperor, pulling off his imperial robes, prayed prostrate on the pavement. "My soul cleaveth to the dust," he cried; "quicken thou me according to Thy word." The people wept and prayed with him, being moved with his grief and humiliation.
Ambrose mentions in his funeral oration, that from the time of the Emperor's deep anguish he never passed a day without recalling to mind the crime into which he had been betrayed by his great failing — an infirmity of temper.
There are few events in the annals of the church more deeply interesting than the penance of the great Theodosius, and the rigorous conditions of restoration demanded by Ambrose. Stripped of the superstition and formalities peculiar to the times, we have a case before us of the most genuine and salutary discipline. We must not suppose for a moment, that the behavior of Theodosius was the result of weakness or pusillanimity, but of a true fear of God; a real feeling of his guilt, a tender conscience, an acknowledgement of the claims of God, to whom all worldly greatness is subject.
Ambrose was neither haughty nor hypocritical, as we find many of the pontiffs became in later times. He cherished a strong affection for the Emperor, and a sincere concern for his soul; but he acted towards him from a solemn sense of his duty. He had a great idea, no doubt, of the dignity with which his office invested him; and he felt himself bound to use it in behalf of justice and humanity, and in controlling the power of earthly sovereignty: a character of power, most certainly, never granted by God to a christian minister; and which often proved in after ages to be a most dangerous power, as the priest who holds in his hands the king's conscience may inflame or moderate his sanguinary passions. In the case of Ambrose it was pure christian influence. He appeared, though somewhat out of character, as the vindicator of outraged humanity, and as exercising a judicial authority over the meanest and the mightiest of mankind. But it is always disastrous to interfere with God's order, even when the best of objects seems to be thereby gained.
About four months after his victory over Eugenius, and the chastisement of the assassins of Valentinian, Theodosius the Great died at Milan, in the year 395, not exceeding fifty years of age; the last Emperor who maintained the dignity of the Roman name. Ambrose did not long survive his imperial friend. He died at Milan on Easter-eve, 397. He deepened and strengthened the foundations of ecclesiastical power which was to influence Christianity in all future ages. Basail, the two Gregories, and Chrysostom flourished about this time.
Chapter 12 - The Internal History of the Church