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CHRISTIANITY AT THE END OF THE SECOND CENTURY—DOGMA.
In the space of time which passed from the death of Augustus to the death of Marcus-Aurelius a new religion was produced in the world; it called itself Christianity. The essence of that religion consisted in believing that a grand celestial manifestation was made in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, a divine being, who, after a quite supernatural life, was put to death by the Jews, his compatriots, and rose again on the third day. Thus, the conqueror of death, he waits, at the right hand of God, his Father, the propitious hour to reappear in’ the clouds to preside at the general resurrection, of which his own has been but the prelude, and to inaugurate, upon a purified earth, the kingdom of God; that is to say, the reign of the risen saints. While waiting thus, the assembly of the faithful, the Church, represents a kind of city of the saints presently living, always governed by Jesus. It was believed, in fact, that Jesus had delegated his powers to apostles, who established bishops and all the ecclesiastical hierarchy. The Church renews its communion with Jesus by means of the breaking of bread and the mystery of the cup, a rite established by Jesus himself, and by virtue of which Jesus becomes for the moment but really present in the midst of his own people. As consolation in their waiting, in the midst of the persecutions of a perverse world, the faithful have the supernatural gifts of the Spirit of God, that Spirit which formerly animated the prophets and which is not extinguished. They have especially the reading of the books revealed by the Spirit; that is to say, the Bible, the Gospels, the letters of the apostles, and those of the writings of the new prophets which the Church has adopted for reading in the public assemblies. The life of the believers ought to be a life of prayer, asceticism, renunciation, and separation from the world, since the present world is governed by the prince of evil, Satan, and since idolatry is nothing else than the worship of devils.
Such a religion would appear at first as if it had come from Judaism. The Jewish Messianism is its cradle. The first title of Jesus, a title become inseparable from his name, is Christos, the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Mesih. The grand sacred book of the new worship is the Jewish Bible; its festivals, at least as to names, are the Jewish festivals; its prophecy is the continuation of the Jewish prophecy. But the separation between the mother and the child is made thoroughly. The Jews and the Christians, in general, detest each other; the new religion tends more and more to forget its origin and what it owes to the Hebrew people. Christianity is looked upon by most of its adherents as an entirely new religion, without any tie to that which precedes it.
If we now compare Christianity, such as it existed about the year 180, with the Christianity of the Middle Ages, with the Christianity of our day, we find that it really has been augmented in a very small degree in the centuries which have passed away. In 180 the New Testament was closed; no other new book shall be added. Slowly the epistles of Paul have conquered their place after the gospels in the sacred code and in the liturgy. As to dogmas, nothing was fixed; but the germ of everything existed; scarcely any idea can appear which could not find authorities in the first and second centuries. There has been too much, there have been contradictions; the theological work shall rather consist in pruning, cutting away superfluities, than in inventing anything new. The Church shall allow to fall to the ground a crowd of matters badly begun; it will come away from these difficulties. It has still two hearts, so to speak; it has many heads; these anomalies shall pass away; but no dogma truly original shall form itself henceforth.
The Trinity of the doctors of the year 180, for example, is undecided. Logos, Paraclete, Holy Spirit, Christ, and Son are words employed confusedly to designate the divine entity incarnate in Jesus. The three persons are not counted, numbered, if one may express it in that way; but the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are well enough designated by the three terms which shall be maintained as distinct, without, nevertheless, dividing the indivisible Jehovah. The Son shall increase exceedingly. That species of vicarship which Monotheism, from a certain time, is pleased to give to the Supreme Being shall in a singular manner obscure the Father. The bizarre formulas of Nicea shall establish some equalities contrary to nature; the Christ, the sole active person of the Trinity, shall be changed with the whole work of creation, and providence shall become God himself. But the epistle to the Colossians is only one step in such a doctrine; to arrive at these exaggerations only a little logic is needed. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is herself destined to increase to colossal proportions; she shall become indeed a person of the Trinity. Already the Gnostics have divined this future, and inaugurated a worship called by an immoderate importance.
The dogma of the divinity of Jesus Christ exists complete; only, there is not agreement as to the formulas which serve to express it; the Christology of the Judeo-Christian of Syria and that of the author of the Hermas or the Confessions differ considerably; the work of theology shall be to choose, not to create. The millenarianism of the first Christians became more and more distasteful to the Greeks who embraced Christianity. Greek philosophy exercised a kind of violent thrust in order to substitute its dogma of the immortality of the soul for the old Jewish ideas (or Persian ideas if you will) of the resurrection and a Paradise on earth. The two formulas yet coexist. Irenæus surpassed all the millenarians in gross materialism, since already, fifty years back, the fourth gospel, so purely spiritualistic, proclaimed that the kingdom of God commences here below, that one carries it in himself. Caius, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Dionysius of Alexandria sought soon to condemn the dream of the first Christians, and to envelop the Apocalypse in their antipathy. But it is too late to suppress anything so important. Christianity will subordinate the appearance of Christ in the clouds and the resurrection of the body to the immortality of the soul; so that the old primitive dogma of Christianity shall be almost forgotten and relegated, like a theatrical piece out of vogue, to the background of a last judgment, which has as little meaning since the fate of each one is fixed at death. Many declare that the torments of the damned will never end, and that these pains shall be a condiment to the joy of the righteous; others believe that they will finish or be mitigated.
In the theory of the constitution of the Church, the idea that the apostolic succession is the foundation of the bishop’s power, who is thus looked on not only as a delegate of the community, but as continuing the apostles’ office, and being the depository of their authority, came more and more uppermost. Yet many Christians hold still to the much more simple conception of the Ecclesia in Matthew, where all the members are equal. In the fixing of the canonical books, agreement reigns as to the grand fundamental texts; but an exact list of the writings of the new Bible does not exist, and the limits, if we may so express it, of this new sacred literature are entirely undecided.
The Christian doctrine is thus already one so compact that nothing essential shall be joined to it, and that any considerable retrenchment shall not be possible. Up to Mahomet, and even after him, there were in Syria some Judeo-Christians, Elkasaïtes, and Ebionites. In addition to these minim or Nazarenes of Syria, whom the erudite among the Fathers alone knew, and who did not cease even in the fourth century to inveigh against St. Paul in their synagogues, and to treat the ordinary Christians as false Jews, the East has never ceased to reckon some Christian families observing the Sabbath and practising circumcision. The Christians of Salt and Kerak appear to be, in our day, a kind of Ebionites. The Abyssinians are real Judeo-Christians, practising all the Jewish precepts, often with more rigour than the Jews themselves. The Koran and Islamism are only a prolongation of that old form of Christianity, Docetism, the suppression of the cross. On the other hand, in the full nineteenth century, the communist and apocalyptic sects of America make of millenarianism and an approaching last judgment the foundation of their belief, as in the first days of the first Christian generations.
Thus, in that Christian Church of the end of the second century, everything was already said. There is not an opinion, not a course of ideas, not a fable which has not had her defender. Arianism was in germ in the opinions of the monarchists, Artemonites, Praxeas, Theodotus of Byzantium, and those made the remark with reason that their belief had been that of the majority of the Church of Rome up to the time of Pope Zephyrin (about the year 200). That which is wanting in this age of unbridled liberty is what shall later on bring about councils and doctors—namely, discipline, rule, and the elimination of contradictions. Jesus is already God, and yet many people have a repugnance to call him by this name. The separation from Judaism is accomplished, and yet many Christians practise still all Judaism. Sunday replaces Saturday, which does not prevent certain of the faithful observing the Sabbath. The Christian passover is distinguished from the Jewish passover; and yet some entire churches always follow the ancient usage. In the supper, most churches use ordinary bread; many, nevertheless, especially in Asia Minor, use only unleavened bread. The Bible and the writings of the New Testament are the base of the ecclesiastical teaching, and at the same time a crowd of other books are adopted by some and rejected by others. The four Gospels are fixed, and yet many other evangelical texts circulate and obtain favour. The majority of the faithful, far from being enemies of the Roman empire, only waited the day of reconciliation, admitting already the thought of a Christian empire; others continue to vomit against the capital of the Pagan world the most sombre apocalyptic predictions. An orthodoxy is formed and already used as a touchstone to set aside heresy; but, lest this reason of authority should be abused; the most Christian doctors rail hotly against what they call the “plurality of error.” The primacy of the Church of Rome commenced to be marked out; but those even who submitted to this primacy would have protested if it had been said that the bishop of Rome would one day aspire to the title of sovereign of the universal Church. To resume, the differences which separate in our days the most orthodox Catholic and the most liberal Protestant there is very little difference, except such disagreements as existed then between two Christians who have not remained less in perfect communion with each other.
What makes the unequalled interest of this creating period? Accustomed to study only the reflected periods of history, nearly all those who in France have given forth views upon the origins of Christianity have considered only the third and fourth centuries. The centuries of celebrated men and œcumenical councils, symbols and rules of faith, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen, the Council of Nicea and St. Athanasius, are for them the summits and the highest figures. We do not deny the importance of any epoch in history, but there are not beginnings there. Christianity was entirely made before Origen and the Council of Nicea, and who made it? A multitude of great anonymous persons, unconscious groups, writers without name or pseudonyms, the unknown author of the Epistles to Titus and Timothy, attributed to Paul, have contributed more than any Council to the constitution of ecclesiastical discipline. The obscure authors of the Gospels have apparently more real importance than their most celebrated commentators. And Jesus? It will be confessed, I hope, that there had been some reason for which his disciples loved him to the point of believing that he had risen from the dead, and to see in him the accomplishment of the Messianic ideal, the superhuman being destined to preside at the complete renovation of heaven and earth.
Fact in such a matter is the mark of right, success is the grand criterion. In religion and morals, invention is nothing. The maxims of the Sermon on the Mount are as old as the world; no one has the literary property of them. The essential thing is to realise these maxims and to give them as a basis to a society. That is why, in the case of the religious founder, the personal charm is the leading thing. The grand work of Jesus has been to make himself loved by a score of people, or rather to have made them love the idea in him up to a point which triumphs over death. It was the same with the apostles and with the second and third generations. Founders are always obscure; but in the eyes of the philosopher the glory of these unnamed ones is the true glory. They were not great men, those humble contemporaries of Trajan and Antoninus, who have decided the faith for the world. Compared with them the celebrated personages of the Church of the third and fourth centuries make a much better figure. And yet these last have built upon the foundation which the first have laid. Clement of Alexandria and Origen were only half Christians. These are Gnostics, Hellenists, and Spiritualists, placing the essence of Christianity in metaphysical speculation, not in the application of the merits of Jesus or the Biblical Revelation. Origen confesses that if the Law of Moses be understood in its proper sense it would be inferior to the laws of the Romans, the Athenians, and the Spartans. St. Paul had already denied the title of Christian to a Clement of Alexandria, saving the world by a gnosis where the blood of Jesus Christ plays scarcely any part.
The same reflection may be applied to the writings which these ancient ages have left us. They are flat, simple, gross, artless, analogous to letters without orthography, which in our days the most despised communist sectaries would write. James, Jude recall Cabet or Babick, the fanatic of 1848 or the fanatic of 1871, convinced, but not knowing his language, expressing by fits and starts, in a touching manner, his artless aspiration of conscience. And yet these are the stammerings of a kind of people who have become the second Bible of the human race. The upholsterer Paul wrote Greek as badly as Babick did French. The rhetorician governed by literary consideration, for whom French literature commences at Villau; the doctrinaire historian who thinks only of reflected developments, and for whom the French constitution commences with the pretended Constitutions of St. Louis, cannot understand these apparent bizarreries.
The age of beginnings is chaos, but a chaos rich in life; it is the fertile plain where a being is prepared to exist, a monster still, but endowed with a principle of unity, of a type strong enough to remove impossibilities and to give himself essential organs. What are all the efforts of the conscious centuries if we compare them with the spontaneous tendencies of the embryo age—a mysterious age where the being, in process of making himself, cuts away a useless appendage, creates for himself a nervous system, and stretches out a limb? It is in these moments that the Spirit of God broods over his work, and that the group which works for humanity can truly say:—
“Est Deus in nobis, agitante calescimus illo.“
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