« PreviousContinue »
possess. He has not even refused to collect a reflex light from the legends of a later age, which furnish by comparison a measure of the growth of papal pretensions and theological calumny.* True to his leading idea, that the proper materials of Ecclesiastical History are events and persons, and that councils may be viewed as the pitched battles of the Church, he has brought out with great distinctness the principal characters that appear on the scene, and elaborated with peculiar care the two figures which occupy the foreground of the picture,-Constantine and Athanasius. Of the former, we regard his estimate as substantially just. In some instances, perhaps, he may have too closely followed the courtly biographer Eusebius, and borrowed his own picturesque touches with too implicit a confidence from the gaudy colouring of episcopal rhetoric. Nevertheless we agree with Dr. Stanley, that if Constantine could not in himself be considered great, he possessed that sort of historical greatness which results from the coincidence of the hour and the man. Constantine belonged to his age, and understood it. We must never forget, that Christianity worked its way into life through a decaying civilisation. It was a plant growing up amidst ruins, striking its roots in the dank dark crevices of mouldering foundations, clinging to broken columns, and twining round masses of fallen masonry. But it was bearing seed, to be dropped into another soil, and to be wafted by the winds of heaven into fields far distant. This must be borne in mind in estimating the agencies by which it worked and spread, in which it found its earliest support and propagation. They partook of the character of their age. Viewed in any other light, the outward history of the Church will be likely to repel and disgust us. Ideas, however fruitful and beneficent, cannot escape the conditions of historical development. In fact the deeper they go down into human nature, and the closer they lie to the human heart, the more subject they are to endless mutations of form. We cannot, therefore, adopt without some qualification the language of Mr. J. S. Mill, that “it is one of the most tragical facts of all history, that Constantine, rather than Marcus Aurelius, was the first Christian Emperor.”+ He regrets what was, so far as we can read the signs of that remote age, an historical impossibility. Marcus Aurelius belonged to the classical past, then gradually vanishing away. He was, moreover, a philosophical enthusiast ; and had he filled the place of Constantine, he could only have produced additional irritation by fruitlessly endeavouring to arrest the onward course of events, and by infusing a new element of fanaticism into a conflict already fierce and destructive enough. The
* Eastern Church, pp. 211, 212. + Essay on Liberty, p. 58, quoted Eastern Church, p. 217.
ageniest suppo Viewe likely tont, canne deeperhe human We can Mr.
short reaction under Julian shows what would have been the probable result of such an attempt on a larger scale and by a stronger hand, Julian had finer qualities and a more cultivated mind than Constantine; but he was, as Strauss has described him, a “Romanticist on the throne.” He lived amidst the beautiful dreams of an imaginary antiquity, and struggled to restore what was irrecoverably gone. Constantine had less pure and lofty aspirations; but he dealt with his age practically, and gave to society a form and organisation, which, if not the best conceivable, was the only one then possible.
There will, perhaps, in some quarters, be stronger dissent from Dr. Stanley's judgment of Athanasius. For ourselves, we agree with him. Many years ago, when we first studied connectedly this period of Christian history, we came to the same conclusion: that Athanasius, for clearness of aim, singleness of purpose, intrepidity, and energetic will, was by far the greatest man that took part in the deliberations at Nicæa, and in the manifold conflicts which resulted from them. His whole conduct stands out in advantageous contrast with the vacillation and compromise of Eusebius. Dr. Stanley's vivid portraiture of this extraordinary person is one of the most interesting portions of his volume :
“He is the most remarkable representative of the Church of Egypt. So he is still regarded by the Coptic Church, and so he must have been at the time. What his own race and lineage may have been, it is difficult to determine. We know that he himself wrote and spoke in Greek; but he also was able to converse in Coptic. His personal appearance throws but little light on this question. He was of very small stature, a dwarf rather than a man (so we know from the taunt of Julian);** but, as we are assured by Gregory Nazianzen, of almost angelic beauty of face and expression. To this, tradition adds that he had a slight stoop in his figure ; a hooked nose, and small mouth ; a short beard, which spread out into large whiskers; and light auburn hair ; and this last characteristic has been found on the heads of Egyptian mummies, and therefore is compatible with a pure Egyptian descent. His name might seem to indicate a Grecian parentage ; but the case of ' Antony, who was an undoubted Copt, shows that this cannot be relied upon.”+
“ The qualities that seem most forcibly to have struck his contemporaries, seem rather to have been the readiness and versatility of his gifts. An Oxford poet, in the Lyra Apostolica, has sung of
• The royal-hearted Athanase,
With Paul's own mantle blest.' Whatever may have been the intention of this comparison, it is certain that there was a resemblance between the flexibility of Athanasius and the many-sided character of the Apostle, whose boast it was to have
* Mndè århp, år år@pwnlokos eŪTEXAS. Ep. 51. † Pp. 263, 4.
'made himself all things to all men.' None such had occurred before, and none such occurred again till the time of Augustine, perhaps not till the time of Francis Xavier."* “ Among the traits which may be specially selected, as bringing this part of his character before us, and also as being too much overlooked in the popular notions of him, the first is the remarkable quickness and humour of his address.”+ “It has been often said, that a man who can provoke or enjoy a laugh is sure to succeed with his fellow-creatures. We cannot doubt that such was Athanasius. Not less efficacious is the power of making use of a laugh or a jest, instead of serious argument. The grave Epiphanius ventured one day to ask Athanasius what he thought of the opinions of his dangerous supporter, the heretic Marcellus. Athanasius returned no answer; but a significant smile broke out over his whole countenance. Epiphanius had sufficient humour to perceive that this meant, Marcellus has had a narrow escape." # "Another trait made itself felt in the wide-spread belief entertained, that he was the great magician of his age. It was founded, no doubt, on his rapid, mysterious movements, his presence of mind, his prophetic anticipations; to which must be added, a humorous pleasure in playing with the fears and superstitions which these qualities engendered. The Emperor Constantine was entering Constantinople in state. A small figure darts across his path in the middle of the square, and stops his horse. The emperor, thunderstruck, tries to pass on; he cannot guess who the petitioner can be. It is Athanasius, who comes to insist on justice, when thought to be leagues away before the Council of Tyre.”S
Gibbon, whose cold sarcastic mind was awed into respect by the great qualities of Athanasius, has observed of this last incident, that it would form a fine subject for an altar-piece in a church dedicated to Athanasius. With all the vehemence and imperiousness of his nature, there was an element of generous tenderness in Athanasius which is never wanting in a noble soul. When he heard of the sudden death of Arius, he repressed every feeling of exultation at the removal of a hated rival, and simply remarked, in a tone of solemn pathos, that it was the end which awaited us all. Style is no bad indication of mind and character. That of Athanasius is clear, simple, and decisive, free from the vicious inflation of his age, having some affinity in Greek to the marvellous Latinity of Calvin. In the distinguishing doctrine with which bis name is associated, he secured the germ, with intuitive sagacity, of a grand and fertile truth, “ that only through the image of perfect humanity can perfect divinity be made known to us." Origen and Jerome were more learned ; Augustine more subtle and profound; Ambrose was as imperious, though not so genial; but in those kingly attributes of soul which carry with them the deference and submission of contem
• Eastern Church, p. 284. † Ibid. p. 285. [Ibid. p. 286. § Ibid. p. 287.
|| Decline and Fall, III. p. 358, note ch. xxi. poraries, and impress their own character on future generations, Athanasius was the greatest of the Fathers. Dr. Stanley has noticed, that his doctrines found the most welcome reception in the West. Monachism and the Homoüsian theory were alike diffused by his great personal influence in Italy and Gaul. Though of the East, he was one of the most powerful fashioners of the Western mind. His system, blended with that of Augustine, contributed to form the complex and elaborate orthodoxy which still subsists; and it is a curious fact, that the most strongly marked theological beliefs of Europe and her widespread colonies, should be derived from two Africans, who were among the last to wield with facility and force, for the utterance of high thought, the noble languages of Greece and Rome. After quoting Basil's expressive comparison of Athanasius, - suggested probably by the Pharos of his own city of Alexandria, to an observer on a lofty watch-tower of speculation, noting with his ubiquitous glance what is passing throughout the stormy world below, Dr. Stanley adds these eloquent words:
“With this image, too, let me conclude. Our view over the sea of ecclesiastical history, past and present and future, is as it was then. The tempest still rages; the ships which went out of the harbour have never returned. They are still tossing to and fro, and tossing against one another in the waves of controversy. It may have been an advantage to have gazed for a moment over this scene through the eyes and with the experiences of Athanasius the Great."*
This is a remarkable concession from a churchman who approves of the decisions of the Nicæan council, and argues that Christendom should still adhere to its old creeds. His language asserts, as distinctly as language can, the utter inadequacy even of the one among them which has its centre, as he believes, in the only essential point of Christian belief,—to harmonise conflicting dogmas and insure religious peace. If the experiences of history are of any value, they should have taught us this great lesson before now. Councils and creeds may have beenwe think they were--a political necessity of the times which produced them, a form of utterance which the struggling elements of public opinion inevitably took under the actual conditions of society. We may allow all this, and even concede that in ages past their collateral uses neutralised, if they did not counterbalance, their direct evils, without drawing from it any reason for their authoritative perpetuation into a period of which the social conditions have undergone an entire change. Dr. Stanley appears to us to put far too favourable a construction on the spirit which animated the first council. Our readers will be somewhat astonished to hear that “the eager discussions of
• Eastern Church, p. 302.
Nicæa present the first grand precedent for the duty of private judgment, and the free, unrestrained exercise of biblical and historical criticism."* We, on the other hand, have no doubt that Hosius, Athanasius, and Alexander had determined beforehand wbat the issue should be, and had brought over the emperor to their view ; so that, if there was free talk on all sides, it very much resembled the liberty of speech enjoyed now by the members of a certain legislative assembly on the other side of the Channel, where the measures to be adopted are all fixed previous to discussion,-a mere flourish of rhetoric, the letting off of harmless fireworks to divert the public gaze, without any effect for good or for evil. Nor can we by any means admit the statement, that the first example of the unfettered use of biblical and historical criticism was given at Nicæa, when we remember the learned labours and acute researches of Origen and Dionysius of Alexandria in the preceding century. The reverse is the truth. Free learning, with few exceptions, virtually ceased from that time, and was superseded by ecclesiastical dogmatism. Again, it is not consistent with historical fact to represent “ the first signal instance of the strange sight of Christians persecuting Christians” as afforded by the case of Athanasius, and as proceeding, “not from the orthodox against the heretics, but from the heretics against the orthodox.”+ More than a century before, Origen had been excommunicated in Egypt, and the Artemonites at Rome. All that can be said is, that the spirit of intolerance grew by time, and that the Council of Nicæa, instead of mitigating, organised and justified it. Arius, Secundus, and Theonas were deposed and banished before Athanasius himself was persecuted. No doubt they would have visited him with a similar penalty, had they carried the day. It was a simple question of who was uppermost. To attempt to find precedents for free thought and general toleration in any of the events and characters of this period, strikes us as a simple abuse and perversion of historical facts. Probably intolerance was then inevitable in all minds of earnest purpose and strong conviction ; perhaps it was a temporary condition of the final triumph of vital truth; but it is impossible to translate its words and acts into the language of freedom and mutual toleration.
Viewed independently of their historical development, and in relation to a state of things when men must be allowed to think for themselves, if there is to be any social progress, all dogmatic creeds we hold to be utterly mischievous and impracticable; mischievous, because impracticable, and, when made authoritative, holding out a snare and delusion to the mind. We can conceive no healthy bond of comprehensive union in faith and
Eastern Church, p. 135. Ibid. p. 281.