Page images
PDF
EPUB

defender of Constantine's measures, than the allegation, that Galeriús was a heathen, but that Constantine was a Christian. If it was one of the rights of the imperial authority, to control religion, it was as much the right of Galerius to demand the obedience of the people to his edicts, as it could be the right of Constantine to prescribe to them by his mandates. Thus we shall establish, by the same rule, that to persecute Cbristians at one time, and to spare them at another, are equally to be commended as legitimate acts; that whether they be tortured and destroyed, or be suffered to exercise their worship and discipline undisturbed, it is the same as to equity ; since it is evident, that the persecution of Christians by a heathen emperor, is as just a proceeding as is the persecution of any sect of Christians, the Novatians for example, by a Christian emperor; that is to say, both emperors were exercising a jurisdiction over the religious opinions and profession of their sabjects, according to their own will and pleasure: “ Whom they it would they slew, and whom they would they saved alive.” The question to be solved, is not implicated with the religious profession of the persons over whom they exercised this coercive power, as if the right or the wrong, which it involves, were to be determined by difference of that kind, but relates solely to the reasons on which that coercion is rested ; and as these are to be found only in the minds of the coercing parties, they are essentially the same in both cases. If Constantine had power to rule the Church, so had Galerius. Interference in religion, as practised by the former emperor, is just as correot a precedent as is the conduct of the latter. This would justify the proscription of Christians at Constantinople, and that would sanction the persecution of Christians and Mohammedans at Lisbon, or at London. Into such absurdities and mischiefs do they plunge, who recognise in human power authority to interfere in religion ! : . «The emperor,' (Constantine,) says Mr. Brown, “frequently asserted, that the care of the church was committed to him,

(as the conduct of the clergy, during his reign, proves that " they believed it to have been committed). By whom, and by what instrument of conveyance, was this care' committed to Constantine ? Mr. Brown has incurred a heavy responsibility, if, in the course of his investigations, he has met with such a document, and conceals the knowledge of it. As it could be nothing less than a Divine communication, it would be fully satisfactory, if properly verified, and all objections to

the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the crown, in the early ages

of Christianity,' would be sitenced by its production. The only proof, however, that the care of the Church was committed to Constantine, is his own assertion to that effect. This kind of proof would make strange work in its application to other

purposes. His Holiness of Rome asserts, that to him the care of the Church is committed, and he announces himself to the world as the Vicegerent of Jesus Christ. Let Protestants then look to themselves. The conduct of the Clergy proved that they believed the care of the Church was committed to Constantine. Doubtless! And does not the conduct of the Catholic Clergy prove that they believe the care of the Church to be committed to the Pope? This argument is most admirable. It may very copiously be produced to prove, that the care of the Church is committed to the secular magistrate ; but we must, however, have something better than this asserting, and this believing, to warrant the submission of our consciences to Em. perors, or Kings, or Popes. Till we shall be favoured with another revelation from heaven, introducing a new economy, and giving us instructions on the subject of religious obedi. ence, we must abide by the laws of the existing dispensation, and call no man master, remembering that in religion, our sole master is Christ.

A correct exposition of the causes in which the opinions and practice of Constantine, as an arbiter and ruler over the Church, originated, woulel, we believe, furnish a most complete refutation of every claim with which he has been considered as inu vested. We have not room for a statement of every particular which we might be able to offer on this subject; we shall, however, attempt to exhibit the character and pretensions of Constantine, somewhat more approximating to truth than as they have been èommonly represented.

At the period of his assuming the purple, Constantine had not discarded Paganism. Both Eusebius (Vita Constan. Lib. 1, 27), and Socrates (Hist. Lib. 1, 2), describe him, when engaged in his preparations to give battle to Maxentius, as deliberating with himself to what deity he should address his sapplications for aid in that warfare. On the defeat of Maxentius, a decree was issued by the joint Emperors, Constantine and Licinius, for the protection of religionists of every description, Pagan and Christian, leaving them in full and free possession of the liberty to which they had a natural and equal claim. 6 We;' say these personages; having long considered that the 6 freedom of religious' worship ought not to be restrained, but 6 that every person should enjoy the right of attending to reli

gion, as he himself may please; and that we should allow, as 6 well to Christians as to all others, the right of worshipping • as they may freely chuse ; declare our will that no person < shall be hindered from professing the Christian religion, and 6 that every person be free to adopt the religious opinions and practice which he approves:'* Here we perceive that the

* Euseb. Eccles. Hist. Lib. I. 5. p. 480. Ed. Reading.

subjects of the empire were not to be molested for their religion, whether it were Christianity or Paganism, which is left to the arbitration of their own minds. No force was to be applied to the conscience.Protection was afforded, without respect of religious profession, to every subject. , Religion is treated (as it always ought to be) as a personal affair in wbich the civil power of the State might not interfere. By what reasons shall we be prevented from setting aside the whole tenor and tendency of Mr. B.'s pages, in our assuming of the prior validity and justice of this edict over all the subsequent interference and acts of Constantine? If the rights which it recognises and establishes, be founded in justice, then it undeniably follows, that every suc. ceeding measure of a contrary kind was unjust. It was strictly within the limits of the Emperor's authority, to assure all the subjects of the empire, of protection in the exercise of their religion. * Constantine bad not yet learned to rule the consciences of men; them, we find, he leaves in uninterrupted possession of their native liberty. Soon after the death of Maxentius, but especially after the defeat of Licinius, when Constantine held solely the reins of power, and the ministers of the Christian religion, already secularized in spirit, and aspiring to worldly preeminence, obtained access to his presence, and ingratiated themselves with the Emperor, he assumed the office of prescribing to the faith of mankind. For the possession of his favour, the ministers of the Christian churches bartered their independance. They solicited his attention to their controversies. They made him the arbiter of their differences, not because he was wise, but because he was powerful. He was flattered by them into the belief of the most monstrous tenets, importing bis supremacy over the Christian communities of the empire. The most extravagant panegyrics were lavished upon him, and his unworthy adulators ascribed to him the honours and prerogative of the divinity. The office of prescribing to the faith of mankind, and of judging offences against the Gospel, wbich the invisible Head of the Church has challenged as exclusively his own, was accounted proper for a mortal. Constantine became the judge of heresy. He summoned and presided in ecclesiastical councils. He published rescripts and issued edicts, not as formerly, to assure the subjects of the empire of protection in the exercise of their religion, but to denounce religious opinions, and to threaten the infliction of the most severe punishments against all persons whose tenets and discipline might not correspond to the standard which he proposed. " Why,' exclaims the Emperor, in an ordinance which he published against the Novatians and others," why should we bear any longer with your . impieties! You shall not dare in future to meet together ;

« you are deprived of the places in which you have been accus

tomed to assemble.'* In a letter addressed hy Constantine to Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria, and Arius, one of his presbyters at the commencement of the Arian controversy, he denomi. nates the points in dispute between these ecclesiastics trivial, and is pleased to consider their opposition, as a contest about words. Soon after, however, his letter to the Alexandrians, informing them of the proceedings of the Council of Nice, spoke a very different kind of language. The opinions of Arius are there stigmatized as wicked doctrines ;' he himself is described as an impudent servant of the devil;' his books are ordered to be burnt, and the punishment of death is declared against every person refusing to destroy them. I The result of Constantine's interference in the case of the Donatists, we shall give in Mr. Brown's words. The sentence of the Emperor, he remarks,

Was soon followed by the enaction of some severe laws against a sect which had so often been condemned by various tribunals, to whose cognizance the Emperor had referred the decision of their complaints. By one of these he deprived them of their churches, and other places of assembly, which he confiscated to the public treasury, at the same time forbidding them to assemble themselves together for the purpose of religious worship. He likewise sequestered the private property of those whom he had condemned, and even sentenced some of them to death ; though he afterwards seems to have commuted this, for a milder punishment, most probably that of exile, which some of them certainly underwent.' p. 14.

This was ecclesiastical jurisdiction! These were the proceed-, ings of the Einperor Constantine! It cannot be doubted that Constantine interfered in the concerns of the Church; that is, he employed his power to coerce conscience, and to punish its

exercise in religion. But whence did he derive that authority ? - Who committed the care of the Church to him? Who gave Constantine authority to pronounce the opinions of men erroneous ? The power which he possessed, 'was correct, as it was exercised for the regulation of political affairs; but it was most flagitious as directed towards religion, the cognizance of which no mortal can claim. Christianity could not, in the least, be affected by the elevation of Constantine to the imperial throne ; its relations to man were still the same, its spirit and its laws being unalterable. Human power can never, by any of its acts, obtain the aşsent of the mind to truth, which can be received only on the perception of its existence; hence, the Gospel, which can benefit man only as he sincerely receives it, and yields himself to its influence, was committed to the world by its Author, accompanied * Euseb. Vita Constant. Lib. III. 64, 65, pp. 620, 621, Ed. Reading.

+ Ibid. Lib. II.71, p. 571.
Socratis Hist. Eccles. Lib. I. 9. p. 31. Ed. Reading.

with the evidences of its divinity, to take its course, to be res jected or embraced by those to whom it might be tendered, at their own peril. It was nothing less than a forcible and most pernicious invasion of the Christian religion, when Constantine undertook to be the judge of its professors. The fear of his wrath became the principle of a hypocritical proselytism ; and the hope of his favour engaged men in a false avowal of disciple, ship. There is but too much reason to apprehend, that, not. withstanding the laboured and gorgeous papegyrics of Euse, bius on the Emperor's piety, Constantine was but little acquainted with the principles, and still less with the spirit of the Gospel. He indeed could dictate OLODUotos to the Nicene Council, as the measure of the true faith; he could proclaim his intention to reduce mankind from error to the right way; he could provide splendid banquets for the bishops who frequented bis court, in which Eusebius could perceive a representation of Christ's kingdom; he could erect magnificent churches, and endow them with riches; and he could trust to a baptism administered almost in his last moments, and purposely deferred till the shades of death were darkening his eyes, for the purgation of the sins of his whole life! The contaminations of guilt, which he had contracted, and the stains of blood which he had unrighteously and unnaturally shed, were, in his expectation, to be washed away by the sacred mysteries, as the baptismal waters were then denominated.'

But whatever might be the character of Constantine, it belonged yot to him to prescribe religious tenets, and to enforce them by secular authority. The proofs of his interference in the concerns of the Church, are, it must be granted, very abundant and very decisive : but whither do they tend ? Most certainly not to convince us that religion is the proper element for human power; and as little that truth can be benefited by its assistance. The consequence of Constantine's interference in the affairs of of the Church, was, " That the Christian religion, which, for 300 5 years after the ascension of Jesus, had been spreading over a

large part of Asia, Europe, and Africa, without the assistance of secular power and chureh authority, and at the convening • of the Council of Nice, was almost every where through those

countries in a flourishing condition, in the space of another ? 300 years, or a little inore, was greatly corrupted in a large

part of that extent, its glory debased, and its light almost extinguished ! Lardner's Credib. vol. 8, p. 24. .

It may be very convenient to some persons to use the kind of of language which we find adopted by Mr. Brown, that the supreme secular power of the State and that of the Church were

once opposing powers,' between which a ypion was effected in the age of Constantine ; but a saber ingutrer, whose sole object is

« PreviousContinue »