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‘The Empty Places in Their Hearts’
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon: Summation 15
© 2023 James LaFond
14 times have I listened to this masterful treatment of the early Christian church. I have supplemented this with one listen of Saint Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine and two of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.
Gibbon was read in the most resent scholarship on Christianity and had conducted a comprehensive reading of the Ancients. This reader must quote the full chapter heading.
“Chapter 15: The Progress of the Christian Religion, and the Sentiments, Manners, Numbers and Conditions of the Primitive Christians…
“A candid but rational inquiry into the progress and establishment of early Christianity…”
This was essential to Gibbon’s history of Rome in that the empire that had bound some 30 nations as collective slaves, before it was conquered by barbarians, was first overthrown from within by a meek minority of Christians. The historian seeks to understand “the Secondary Causes” for this. For the primary cause, in his mind and in his heart, was the Truth of the Gospels and the Divine Authorship of the Faith.
This three-hour reading constitutes a methodical inspection of the secondary causes for the internal conquest of brutal, pagan Rome, by meek and non violent minority collectives, and the continuation of Rome as a no less brutal Christian Empire. [1]
“While that great body was invaded from without and decayed from within, a pure and humble religion insinuated itself into the minds of men.”
Gibbon goes no to point at that his time was still part of a 1300 year Christian “revolution” and that Europe, “the most distinguished portion of humanity in arts as well as in arms,” still professed the Christian Faith. One can see what a problem Gibbon’s work would be for the teachers of today.
He does note that “this inquiry, however useful and entertaining, is attended with two particular difficulties: the scanty and suspicious ecclessiastic materials” [2] the historian describes an “uninspired” intellectual climate that placed a “dark cloud” over the early church. Yet he proceeds in faith…
“The theologian may describe Religion as descending from Heaven arrayed in Her native purity…” yet the Historian has “a more melancholy task…he must discover the error and corruption She contracted in Her long residence on earth among a weak and degenerate race of beings…”
“ what means did the Christian faith achieve such a remarkable victory over the established religions of the earth?”
The historian concludes, “it was owing to the convincing evidence of the doctrine itself and to the ruling providence of its author.”
Secondary Causes for the Triumph of Christianity under Rome
-1. “The inflexible” and “intolerant zeal of the Christians...”
-2. “The doctrines of a future life...”
-3. “The miraculous power ascribed to the primitive church...”
-4. “The pure and austere morals of the Christians...”
-5. “The union and discipline of the Christian Republic...”
First, Gibbon notes that the intolerant hatred for other peoples and their belief systems held by the Hebrews of Antiquity made them a marvel of the ancient world, for ages occupying its lowest rungs. He declares that the Mosaic law was ideal for defence of its believers. He uses biblical quotes to emphasize that Jews of the Greek and Roman period were far more pious than those of Exodus who had evidence if God’s immediate favor and wrath, that something about the Chosen People being abandoned by their God made them stronger in faith under his displeasure then in the immediate wake of His deliverance. It would fall to early Christians, being Jews in the earliest phase, to retool this defensive faith into an offensive faith.
Second, the gloom of pagan doctrines on the afterlife, left such motivations in the hands of eastern mystics, who were reclusive rather than socially proactive. The duty to witness with zeal was central to early Christian expansion.
Three, miracles were witnessed and related by respected people. Gibbon does discuss doctrines of his age that debate over when miracles stopped, with many authorities siding with the Reign of Constantine, though Increase Mather related a series of miracles in 1675-6 New England.
Four, the superior morals of the Christians and the various vowels of poverty that wealthy Christians would make upon conversion, gave a sense of moral incline in an age of deep moral decline.
Five, the most important of these in terms of their appeal to a warrior like Constantine, with little patience for administration and an adore for life in the saddle, was the Christian Republic. Prohibitions on engaging in civic life with pagans, and the fact that it was an urban faith of the lettered elite, insured that there was an underground system of civics growing stronger as Rome grew weak. Also, that many Christians, even under Diocletion, worked in government and in the army, the faith of an afterlife having particular appeal to soldiers. Gibbon makes one wry aside that the only type of idolatry that Christians engaged in was the use of money imprinted with pagan gods. Prophets were accepted in the early church along with the Presbyrs. By the time of Constantine, such figures had been banned by the Bishops and doctrine would rule over revelation, making The Church a ready made civic government to replace the complex pagan government that had recently been shattered by he and other warlords.
I have noted that ancient pagans accused Christians of atheism and that modern atheism as a doctrine stems directly from the Judeo-Christian traditions. However, there is one way in which the modern Christian and Modern atheist may disagree with the primitive Christian.
The Empire of the Demons!
Primitive Christians did not agree with ancient Platonic, Cynic and Epicurian philosophers, and modern Atheists and Christians that the pagan gods were make believe fables used to control the rural hayseeds and urban mob. No, the early Christians saw, as did Tiraldus the Norman in his composition of the Song of Roland, [3] the pagan gods as the demonic angels who had revolted against The Creator, against “The Divine Author,” as taking on the role of such gods as Jove and Apollo, in that their only possibility for comfort, was in making humanity share their fallen misery.
I suggest that Eddison, in the novel The Worm Oroborus, used Gibbon’s sketch of the Empire of the demons for the setting of his epic.
Side Notes
-A. The Christians that took over control of Roman government under Constantine lead congregations that numbered but 5% of the urban population and had under 1% or rural representation.
-B. The Nazarene Christians
“The first 15 bishops of Jerusalem where circumcised Jews.” It was apparently not until the reign of Hadrian and the putting down of a Jewish Uprising that the Early Christian Church severed its ties with the parent religion. The Nazarenes under the bishops of Jerusalem retired to Pella for some 70 years. Those who sought to reaffirm their link with “the church of nations” then elected a Latin bishop, one Marcus, and returned to Hadrian’s new colony. The remainder seemed to languish in Syria and eventually dissolve into “the church or the synagogue” rejoining the parent faith or abandoning it for the new faith.
From the Death of Christ to the reign of Hadrian, a hundred years with no schism, no battle over Christian doctrine elapsed. Until this time the battles on doctrine were between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians in regard to Mosaic Law.
-C. The Gnostics
To be “released from their corporal prison,” to be freed from their “cage of flesh” and the various doctrines of future states among the polytheists are discussed in depth by Gibbon, a pious Christian of the 18th Century, with a sense of empathy for the teeming dammed of antiquity, who wields a sharp sword upon his class analogues of Late Antiquity. The Gnostics were wealthy and literate and throve in the 100s, declined in the 200s and were suppressed in the 300s. Gnostics provided doctrinal opposition against the church at the same time that they attracted Neo-Platonists and other seeking souls, and thus helped feed the church and also sharpen its claws.
-1. Civic laws in Christian Rome included throwing bakers into their own ovens when found guilty of increasing bread prices and making other criminals drink camel piss, from the camel urethra in public.
-2. Augustine was an ideological shape shifter who had been a Manichaen Gnostic and reads like a secular ideologue of our own political climate in many spots, having as much in concord with an ancient Epicurian as with a modern Christian. Turtellian, despite his comforting fanaticism, seems obsessed with temporal civics.
-3. Gibbon cites Milton’s Paradise Lost as an accurate inventory of The Empire of the Demons posing as ancient gods.
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