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§ 5. Causes of the Success of Christianity.
The chief positive cause of the rapid spread and ultimate triumph of Christianity is to be found in its own absolute intrinsic worth, as the universal religion of salvation, and in the perfect teaching and example of its divine-human Founder, who proves himself to every believing heart a Saviour from sin and a giver of eternal life. Christianity is adapted to all classes, conditions, and relations among men, to all nationalities and races, to all grades of culture, to every soul that longs for redemption from sin, and for holiness of life. Its value could be seen in the truth and self-evidencing power of its doctrines; in the purity and sublimity of its precepts; in its regenerating and sanctifying effects on heart and life; in the elevation of woman and of home life over which she presides; in the amelioration of the condition of the poor and suffering; in the faith, the brotherly love, the beneficence, and the triumphant death of its confessors.
To this internal moral and spiritual testimony were added the powerful outward proof of its divine origin in the prophecies and types of the Old Testament, so strikingly fulfilled in the New; and finally, the testimony of the miracles, which, according to the express statements of Quadratus, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, and others, continued in this period to accompany the preaching of missionaries from time to time, for the conversion of the heathen.
Particularly favorable outward circumstances were the extent, order, and unity of the Roman empire, and the prevalence of the Greek language and culture.
In addition to these positive causes, Christianity had a powerful negative advantage in the hopeless condition of the Jewish and heathen world. Since the fearful judgment of the destruction of Jerusalem, Judaism wandered restless and accursed, without national existence. Heathenism outwardly held sway, but was inwardly rotten and in process of inevitable decay. The popular religion and public morality were undermined by a sceptical and materialistic philosophy; Grecian science and art had lost their creative energy; the Roman empire rested only on the power of the sword and of temporal interests; the moral bonds of society were sundered; unbounded avarice and vice of every kind, even by the confession of a Seneca and a Tacitus, reigned in Rome and in the provinces, from the throne to the hovel. Virtuous emperors, like Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius, were the exception, not the rule, and could not prevent the progress of moral decay. Nothing, that classic antiquity in its fairest days had produced, could heal the fatal wounds of the age, or even give transient relief. The only star of hope in the gathering night was the young, the fresh, the dauntless religion of Jesus, fearless of death, strong in faith, glowing with love, and destined to commend itself more and more to all reflecting minds as the only living religion of the present and the future. While the world was continually agitated by wars, and revolutions, and public calamities, while systems of philosophy, and dynasties were rising and passing away, the new religion, in spite of fearful opposition from without and danger from within, was silently and steadily progressing with the irresistible force of truth, and worked itself gradually into the very bone and blood of the race.
"Christ appeared," says the great Augustin, "to the men of the decrepit, decaying world, that while all around them was withering away, they might through Him receive new, youthful life."
Gibbon, in his famous fifteenth chapter, traces the rapid progress of Christianity in the Roman empire to five causes: the zeal of the early Christians, the belief in future rewards and punishment, the power of miracles, the austere (pure) morals of the Christian, and the compact church organization. But these causes are themselves the effects of a cause which Gibbon ignores, namely, the divine truth of Christianity, the perfection of Christ’s teaching and Christ’s example. See the strictures of Dr. John Henry Newman, Grammar of Assent, 445 sq., and Dr. George P. Fisher, The Beginnings of Christianity, p. 543 sqq. "The zeal" [of the early Christians], says Fisher, "was zeal for a person, and for a cause identified with Him; the belief in the future life sprang out of faith in Him who had died and risen again, and ascended to Heaven; the miraculous powers of the early disciples were consciously connected with the same source; the purification of morals, and the fraternal unity, which lay at the basis of ecclesiastical association among the early Christians, were likewise the fruit of their relation to Christ, and their common love to Him. The victory of Christianity in the Roman world was the victory of Christ, who was lifted up that He might draw all men unto Him."
Lecky (Hist. of Europ. Morals, I. 412) goes deeper than Gibbon, and accounts for the success of early Christianity by its intrinsic excellency and remarkable adaptation to the wants of the times in the old Roman empire. "In the midst of this movement," he says, "Christianity gained its ascendancy, and we can be at no loss to discover the cause of its triumph. No other religion, under such circumstances, had ever combined so many distinct elements of power and attraction. Unlike the Jewish religion, it was bound by no local ties, and was equally adapted for every nation and for every class. Unlike Stoicism, it appealed in the strongest manner to the affections, and offered all the charm of a sympathetic worship. Unlike the Egyptian religion, it united with its distinctive teaching a pure and noble system of ethics, and proved itself capable of realizing it in action. It proclaimed, amid a vast movement of social and national amalgamation, the universal brotherhood of mankind. Amid the softening influence of philosophy and civilization, it taught the supreme sanctity of love. To the slave, who had never before exercised so large an influence over Roman religious life, it was the religion of the suffering and the oppressed. To the philosopher it was at once the echo of the highest ethics of the later Stoics, and the expansion of the best teaching of the school of Plato. To a world thirsting for prodigy, it offered a history replete with wonders more strange than those of Apollonius; while the Jew and the Chaldean could scarcely rival its exorcists, and the legends of continual miracles circulated among its followers. To a world deeply conscious of political dissolution, and prying eagerly and anxiously into the future, it proclaimed with a thrilling power the immediate destruction of the globe—the glory of all its friends, and the damnation of all its foes. To a world that had grown very weary gazing on the cold passionless grandeur which Cato realized, and which Lucan sung, it presented an ideal of compassion and of love—an ideal destined for centuries to draw around it all that was greatest, as well as all that was noblest upon earth—a Teacher who could weep by the sepulchre of His friend, who was touched with the feeling of our infirmities. To a world, in fine, distracted by hostile creeds and colliding philosophies, it taught its doctrines, not as a human speculation, but as a Divine revelation, authenticated much less by reason than by faith. ’With the heart man believeth unto righteousness;’ ’He that doeth the will of my Father will know the doctrine, whether it be of God;’ ’Unless you believe you cannot understand;’ ’A heart naturally Christian;’ ’The heart makes the theologian,’ are the phrases which best express the first action of Christianity upon the world. Like all great religions, it was more concerned with modes of feeling than with modes of thought. The chief cause of its success was the congruity of its teaching with the spiritual nature of mankind. It was because it was true of the moral sentiments of the age, because it represented faithfully the supreme type of excellence to which men were then tending, because it corresponded with their religious wants, aims, and emotions, because the whole spiritual being could then expand and expatiate under its influence that it planted its roots so deeply in the hearts of men."
Merivale (Convers. of the Rom. Emp., Preface) traces the conversion of the Roman empire chiefly to four causes: 1) the external evidence of the apparent fulfilment of recorded prophecy and miracles to the truth of Christianity; 2) the internal evidence of satisfying the acknowledged need of a redeemer and sanctifier; 3) the goodness and holiness manifested in the lives and deaths of the primitive believers; 4) the temporal success of Christianity under Constantine, which "turned the mass of mankind, as with a sweeping revolution, to the rising sun of revealed truth in Christ Jesus."
Renan discusses the reasons for the victory of Christianity in the 31st chapter of his Marc-Aurèle (Paris 1882), pp. 561–588. He attributes it chiefly "to the new discipline of life," and "the moral reform," which the world required, which neither philosophy nor any of the established religions could give. The Jews indeed rose high above the corruptions of the times. "Glorie éternelle et unique, qui doit faire oublier bien des folies et des violence! Les Juifs sont les révolutionnaires du 1er et du 2e siècle de notre ère " They gave to the world Christianity. "Les populations se précipitèrent, par une sorte du mouvement instinctif, dans une secte qui satisfaisait leur aspirations les plus intimes et ouvrait des ésperances infinies." Renan makes much account of the belief in immortality and the offer of complete pardon to every sinner, as allurements to Christianity; and, like Gibbon, he ignores its real power as a religion of salvation. This accounts for its success not only in the old Roman empire, but in every country and nation where it has found a home.
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