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History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 100-325.
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§ 100. Brotherly Love, and Love for Enemies.


Schaubach: Das Verhältniss der Moral des classischen Alterthums zur christlichen, beleuchtet durch vergleichende Erörterung der Lehre von der Feindesliebe, in the "Studien und Kritiken" for 1851, p. 59–121. Also the works of Schmidt, Chastel, Uhlhorn, etc., quoted at § 88 above.


It is generally admitted, that selfishness was the soul of heathen morality. The great men of antiquity rose above its sordid forms, love of gain and love of pleasure, but were the more under the power of ambition and love of fame. It was for fame that Miltiades and Themistocles fought against the Persians; that Alexander set out on his tour of conquest; that Herodotus wrote his history, that Pindar sang his odes, that Sophocles composed his tragedies, that Demosthenes delivered his orations, that Phidias sculptured his Zeus. Fame was set forth in the Olympian games as the highest object of life; fame was held up by Aeschylus as the last comfort of the suffering; fame was declared by Cicero, before a large assembly, the ruling passion of the very best of men.660660    Pro Archia poeta, c. 11: "Trahimur omnes laudis studio, et optimus quisque maxime gloria ducitur."60 Even the much-lauded patriotism of the heroes of ancient Greece and Rome was only an enlarged egotism. In the catalogue of classical virtues we look in vain for the two fundamental and cardinal virtues, love and humility. The very word which corresponds in Greek to humility661661    Ταπεινός. ταπεινόφρων,ταπεινότης, ταπεινοφροσύνη.61 signifies generally, in classical usage, a mean, abject mind. The noblest and purest form of love known to the heathen moralist is friendship, which Cicero praises as the highest good next to wisdom. But friendship itself rested, as was freely admitted, on a utilitarian, that is, on an egotistic basis, and was only possible among persons of equal or similar rank in society. For the stranger, the barbarian, and the enemy, the Greek and Roman knew no love, but only contempt and hatred. The jus talionis, the return of evil for evil, was universally acknowledged throughout the heathen world as a just principle and maxim, in direct opposition to the plainest injunctions of the New Testament.662662    Matt. 5:23, 24, 44; 6:12; 18:21. Rom. 12:17, 19, 20. 1 Cor. 13:7. I Thess. 5:15. 1 Pet. 3:9.62 We must offend those who offend us, says Aeschylus.663663    Prom. Vinct. v. 1005, Comp. 1040. Many passages of similar import from Homer, Hesiod, Sophocles, Euripedes, etc., see quoted on p. 81 sqq. of the article of Schaubach referred to above.63 Not to take revenge was regarded as a sign of weakness and cowardice. To return evil for good is devilish; to return good for good is human and common to all religions; to return good for evil is Christlike and divine, and only possible in the Christian religion.

On the other hand, however, we should suppose that every Christian virtue must find some basis in the noblest moral instincts and aspirations of nature; since Christianity is not against nature, but simply above it and intended for it. Thus we may regard the liberality, benevolence, humanity and magnanimity which we meet with in heathen antiquity, as an approximation to, and preparation for, the Christian virtue of charity. The better schools of moralists rose more or less above the popular approval of hatred of the enemy, wrath and revenge. Aristotle and the Peripatetics, without condemning this passion as wrong in itself, enjoined at least moderation in its exercise. The Stoics went further, and required complete apathy or suppression of all strong and passionate affections. Cicero even declares placability and clemency one of the noblest traits in the character of a great man,664664    De Offic. I. 25: "Nihil enim laudabilius, nihil magno et praeclaro viro dignius placabilitate et clementia."64 and praises Caesar for forgetting nothing except injuries. Seneca, Epictetus, Plutarch, and Marcus Aurelius, who were already indirectly and unconsciously under the influence of the atmosphere of Christian morality, decidedly condemn anger and vindictiveness, and recommend kindness to slaves, and a generous treatment even of enemies.

But this sort of love for an enemy, it should be remembered, in the first place, does not flow naturally from the spirit of heathenism, but is, as it were, an accident and exception; secondly, it is not enjoined as a general duty, but expected only from the great and the wise; thirdly, it does not rise above the conception of magnanimity, which, more closely considered, is itself connected with a refined form of egotism, and with a noble pride that regards it below the dignity of a gentleman to notice the malice of inferior men;665665    Comp. Seneca, De ira II. 32: "Magni animi est injurias despicere. Illemagnus et nobilis est, qui more magnae ferae latratus minutorum canum securus exaudit."65 fourthly, it is commended only in its negative aspect as refraining from the right of retaliation, not as active benevolence and charity to the enemy, which returns good for evil; and finally it is nowhere derived from a religious principle, the love of God to man, and therefore has no proper root, and lacks the animating soul.

No wonder, then, that in spite of the finest maxims of a few philosophers, the imperial age was controlled by the coldest selfishness, so that, according to the testimony of Plutarch, friendship had died out even in families, and the love of brothers and sisters was supposed to be possible only in a heroic age long passed by. The old Roman world was a world without charity. Julian the Apostate, who was educated a Christian, tried to engraft charity upon heathenism, but in vain. The idea of the infinite value of each human soul, even the poorest and humblest, was wanting, and with it the basis for true charity.

It was in such an age of universal egotism that Christianity first revealed the true spirit of love to man as flowing from the love of God, and exhibited it in actual life. This cardinal virtue we meet first within the Church itself, as the bond of union among believers, and the sure mark of the genuine disciple of Jesus. "That especially," says Tertullian to the heathen, in a celebrated passage of his Apologeticus, "which love works among us, exposes us to many a suspicion. ’Behold,’ they say, ’how they love one another!’ Yea, verily this must strike them; for they hate each other. ’And how ready they are to die for one another!’ Yea, truly; for they are rather ready to kill one another. And even that we call each other ’brethren,’ seems to them suspicious for no other reason, than that, among them, all expressions of kindred are only feigned. We are even your brethren, in virtue of the common nature, which is the mother of us all; though ye, as evil brethren, deny your human nature. But how much more justly are those called and considered brethren, who acknowledge the one God as their Father; who have received the one Spirit of holiness; who have awaked from the same darkness of uncertainty to the light of the same truth?... And we, who are united in spirit and in soul, do not hesitate to have also all things common, except wives. For we break fellowship just where other men practice it."

This brotherly love flowed from community of life in Christ. Hence Ignatius calls believers "Christ-bearers" and "God-bearers."666666    Χριστοφόροι, θεοφόροι66 The article of the Apostles’ Creed: "I believe in the communion of saints;" the current appellation of "brother" and "sister;" and the fraternal kiss usual on admission into the church, and at the Lord’s Supper, were not empty forms, nor even a sickly sentimentalism, but the expression of true feeling and experience, only strengthened by the common danger and persecution. A travelling Christian, of whatever language or country, with a letter of recommendation from his bishop,667667     Γράμματα τετυπωμένα or κοινωνικά: epistolae or literae formatae; so called, because composed after a certain τύπος or forma, to guard against frequent forgeries.67 was everywhere hospitably received as a long known friend. It was a current phrase: In thy brother thou hast seen the Lord himself. The force of love reached beyond the grave. Families were accustomed to celebrate at appointed times the memory, of their departed members; and this was one of the grounds on which Tertullian opposed second marriage.

The brotherly love expressed itself, above all, in the most self-sacrificing beneficence to the poor and sick, to widows and orphans, to strangers and prisoners, particularly to confessors in bonds. It magnifies this virtue in our view, to reflect, that the Christians at that time belonged mostly to the lower classes, and in times of persecution often lost all their possessions. Every congregation was a charitable society, and in its public worship took regular collections for its needy members. The offerings at the communion and love-feasts, first held on the evening, afterwards on the morning of the Lord’s Day, were considered a part of worship.668668    Comp. James 1:27; Hebr. 13:1-3, 16.68 To these were added numberless private charities, given in secret, which eternity alone will reveal. The church at Rome had under its care a great multitude of widows, orphans, blind, lame, and sick,669669    Comelius, in Euseb. H. E. VI. 43.69 whom the deacon Laurentius, in the Decian persecution, showed to the heathen prefect, as the most precious treasures of the church. It belonged to the idea of a Christian housewife, and was particularly the duty of the deaconesses, to visit the Lord, to clothe him, and give him meat and drink, in the persons of his needy disciples. Even such opponents of Christianity as Lucian testify to this zeal of the Christians in labors of love, though they see in it nothing but an innocent fanaticism. "It is incredible," says Lucian, "to see the ardor with which the people of that religion help each other in their wants. They spare nothing. Their first legislator has put into their heads that they are all brethren."670670    De Morte Peregr. c. 13.70

This beneficence reached beyond the immediate neighborhood. Charity begins at home, but does not stay at, home. In cases of general distress the bishops appointed special collections, and also fasts, by which food might be saved for suffering brethren. The Roman church sent its charities great distances abroad.671671    Dionysius of Corinth, in Eus. IV. 23.71 Cyprian of Carthage, who, after his conversion, sold his own estates for the benefit of the poor, collected a hundred thousand sestertia, or more than three thousand dollars, to redeem Christians of Numidia, who had been taken captive by neighboring barbarians; and he considered it a high privilege "to be able to ransom for a small sum of money him, who has redeemed us from the dominion of Satan with his own blood." A father, who refused to give alms on account of his children, Cyprian charged with the additional sin of binding his children to an earthly inheritance, instead of pointing them to the richest and most loving Father in heaven.

Finally, this brotherly love expanded to love even for enemies, which returned the heathens good for evil, and not rarely, in persecutions and public misfortunes, heaped coals of fire on their heads. During the persecution under Gallus (252), when the pestilence raged in Carthage, and the heathens threw out their dead and sick upon the streets, ran away from them for fear of the contagion, and cursed the Christians as the supposed authors of the plague, Cyprian assembled his congregation, and exhorted them to love their enemies; whereupon all went to work; the rich with their money, the poor with their hands, and rested not, till the dead were buried, the sick cared for, and the city saved from desolation. The same self-denial appeared in the Christians of Alexandria during a ravaging plague under the reign of Gallienus. These are only a few prominent manifestations of a spirit which may be traced through the whole history of martyrdom and the daily prayers of the Christians for their enemies and persecutors. For while the love of friends, says Tertullian, is common to all men, the love of enemies is a virtue peculiar to Christians.672672    Ad Scapulam, c. 1: Ita enim disciplina jubemur diligere inimicos quoque, et orare pro iis qui nos persequuntur, ut haec sit perfecta et propria bonitas nostra, non communis. Amicos enim diligere omnium est, inimicos autem solorum Christianorum."72 "You forget," he says to the heathens in his Apology, "that, notwithstanding your persecutions, far from conspiring against you, as our numbers would perhaps furnish us with the means of doing, we pray for you and do good to you; that, if we give nothing for your gods, we do give for your poor, and that our charity spreads more alms in your streets than the offerings presented by your religion in your temples."

The organized congregational charity of the ante-Nicene age provided for all the immediate wants. When the state professed Christianity, there sprang up permanent charitable institutions for the poor, the sick, for strangers, widows, orphans, and helpless old men.673673    Nosocomia, Ptochotrophia, Xenodochia, Cherotrophia, Orphanotrophia, Brephotrophia, Gerontocomia (for old men).73 The first clear proof of such institutions we find in the age of Julian the Apostate, who tried to check the progress of Christianity and to revive paganism by directing the high priest of Galatia, Arsacius, to establish in every town a Xenodochium to be supported by the state and also by private contributions; for, he said, it was a shame that the heathen should be left without support from their own, while "among the Jews no beggar can be found, and the godless Galilaeans" (i.e. the Christians) "nourish not only their own, but even our own poor." A few years afterwards (370) we hear of a celebrated hospital at Caesarea, founded by St. Basilius, and called after him "Basilias," and similar institutions all over the province of Cappadocia. We find one at Antioch at the time of Chrysostom, who took a practical interest in it. At Constantinople there were as many as thirty-five hospitals. In the West such institutions spread rapidly in Rome, Sicily, Sardinia, and Gaul.674674    See Uhlhorn, Book III.ch. 4 (p. 319 sqq.).74



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