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I. The lives of primitive Christians another means of bringing learned Pagans into, their religion.
II. The change and reformation of their manners.
III. This looked upon as supernatural by the learned Pagans.
IV. And strengthened the accounts given of our Saviour’s life and history.
V. The Jewish prophecies of our Saviour an argument for the Heathens’ belief:
I. THERE was one other means enjoyed by the learned Pagans of the three fist centuries, for satisfying them in the truth of our Saviour’s history which I might have flung under one of the foregoing heads but as it is so shining a particular, and does so much honour to our religion, I shall make a distinct article of it, and only consider it with regard to the subject I am upon: I mean the lives and manners of those holy men who believed in Christ during the first ages of Christianity. I should be thought to advance a paradox, should I affirm that there were more Christians in the world during those times of persecution than there are at present in these which we call the flourishing times of Christianity. But this will be found an indisputable truth, if we form our calculation upon the opinions which prevailed in those days, that every one who lives in the habitual practice of any voluntary sin actually cuts himself off from the benefits and profession of Christianity, and whatever he may call himself, is in reality no Christian, nor ought to be esteemed as such.
II. In the time that we are now surveying, the Christian religion shewed its full force and efficacy on the minds of men, and by many examples demonstrated what great and generous souls it was capable of producing. It exalted and refined its proselytes, to a very high degree of perfection, and set them far above the pleasures, and even the pains, of this life. It strengthened the infirmity, and broke the fierceness of human nature. It lifted up the minds of the ignorant to the knowledge and worship of him that made them, and inspired the vicious with a rational devotion, a strict purity of heart, and an unbounded love to their fellow-creatures. In proportion as it spread thro’ the world it seemed to change mankind into another species of beings. No sooner was a convert initiated into it, but, by an easy figure, he became a new man, and both acted and looked upon himself as one regenerated and born a second time into another state of existence.
III. It is not my business to be more particular in the accounts of primitive Christianity which have been exhibited so well by others, but rather to observe, that the Pagan converts, of whom I am now speaking, mention this great reformation of those who had been the greatest sinners, with that sudden and surprising change which it made in the lives of the most profligate, as having something in it supernatural, miraculous, and more than human. Origen represents this power in the Christian religion, as no less wonderful than that of curing the lame and blind, or cleansing the leper. Many others represented it in the same light, and looked upon it as an argument, that there was a certain divinity in that religion which showed itself in such strange and glorious effects.
IV. This therefore was a great means not only of recommending Christianity to honest and learned Heathens, but of confirming them in the belief of our Saviour’s history, when they saw multitudes of virtuous men daily forming themselves upon his example, animated by his precepts, and actuated by that Spirit which he had promised to send among his disciples.
V. But I find no argument made a stronger impression on the minds of these eminent Pagan converts, for strengthening their faith in the history of our Saviour, than the predictions relating to him in those old prophetic writings, which were deposited among the hands of the greatest enemies to Christianity, and owned by them to have been extant many ages before his appearance. The learned Heathen converts were astonished to see the whole history of their Saviour’s life published before he was born, and to find that the evangelists and prophets, in their accounts of the Messiah, differed only in point of time; the one foretelling what should happen to him, and the other describing those very particulars as what had actually happened. This our Saviour himself was pleased to make use of as the strongest argument of his being the promised Messiah, and without it would hardly have reconciled his disciples to the ignominy of his death, as in that remarkable passage which mentions his conversation with the two disciples on the day of his resurrection. St. Luke xxiv. 13. to the end.
VI. The Heathen converts, after having travelled through all human learning, and fortified their minds with the knowledge of arts and sciences, were particularly qualified to examine these prophecies with great care and impartiality, and without prejudice or prepossession. If the Jews, on the one side, put an unnatural interpretation on these prophecies, to evade the force of them in their controversies with the Christians; or if the Christians on the other side, overstrained several passages in their applications of them, as it often happens among men of the best understanding, when their minds are heated with any consideration that bears a more than ordinary weight with it the learned Heathens may be looked upon as neuters in the matter, when all these prophecies were new to them, and their education had left the interpretation of them free and indifferent. Besides, these learned men among the primitive Christians, knew how the Jews, who had preceded our Saviour, interpreted these predictions, and the several marks by which they acknowledged the Messiah would be discovered, and how those of the Jewish doctors, who succeeded him, had deviated from the interpretations and doctrines of their forefathers, on purpose to stifle their own conviction.
VII. This set of arguments had therefore an invincible force with those Pagan philosophers who became Christians, as we find in most of their writings. They could, not disbelieve our Saviour’s history, which so exactly agreed with every thing that had been written of him many ages before his birth, nor doubt of those circumstances being fulfiled in him, which could not be true of any person that lived in the world besides himself. This wrought the greatest confusion in the unbelieving Jews, and the greatest conviction in the Gentiles, who every where speak with astonishment of these truths they met with in this new magazine of learning which was opened to them, and carry the point so far as to think whatever excellent doctrine they had met with among Pagan writers had been stolen from their conversation with the Jews, or from the perusal of these writings which they had in their custody.
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