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History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600.
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§ 10. The Heathen Apologetic Literature.


After the death of Julian most of the heathen writers, especially the ablest and most estimable, confined themselves to the defence of their religion, and thus became, by reason of their position, advocates of toleration; and, of course, of toleration for the religious syncretism, which in its cooler form degenerates into philosophical indifferentism.

Among these were Themistius, teacher of rhetoric, senator, and prefect of Constantinople, and afterwards preceptor of the young emperor Arcadius; Aurelius Symmachus, rhetorician, senator, and prefect of Rome under Gratian and Valentinian II., the eloquent pleader for the altar of Victoria; and above all, the rhetorician Libanius, friend and admirer of Julian, alternately teaching in Constantinople, Nicomedia, and Antioch. These all belong to the second half of the fourth century, and represent at once the last bloom and the decline of the classic eloquence. They were all more or less devoted to the Neo-Platonic syncretism. They held, that the Deity had implanted in all men a religious nature and want, but had left the particular form of worshiping God to the free will of the several nations and individuals; that all outward constraint, therefore, was contrary to the nature of religion and could only beget hypocrisy. Themistius vindicated this variety of the forms of religion as favorable to religion itself, as many Protestants justify the system of sects. “The rivalry of different religions,” says he in his oration on Jovian, “serves to stimulate zeal for the worship of God. There are different paths, some hard, others easy, some rough, others smooth, leading to the same goal. Leave only one way, and shut up the rest, and you destroy emulation. God would have no such uniformity among men .... The Lord of the universe delights in manifoldness. It is his will, that Syrians, Greeks, Egyptians should worship him, each nation in its own way, and that the Syrians again should divide into small sects, no one of which agrees entirely with another. Why should we thus enforce what is impossible?” In the same style argues Symmachus, who withholds all direct opposition to Christianity and contends only against its exclusive supremacy.

Libanius, in his plea for the temples addressed to Theodosius I. (384 or 390), called to his aid every argument, religious, political, and artistic, in behalf of the heathen sanctuaries, but interspersed bitter remarks against the temple-storming monks. He asserts among other things, that the principles of Christianity itself condemn the use of force in religion, and commend the indulgence of free conviction.

Of course this heathen plea for toleration was but the last desperate defence of a hopeless minority, and an indirect self-condemnation of heathenism for its persecution of the Christian religion in the first three centuries.


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