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models presented by the Apostolic Church, [and with the faultless precepts of its Founder,] but also with the condition of the contemporary secular society: for never, not even in its most irreproachable state, was the Church of God so thoroughly sifted by the force of truth, and placed on so remote a moral elevation, as to be uninfluenced by all the attractions of the world below. Judged by such a rule as this, how surpassingly brilliant, how far beyond all praise, do the virtues of the early clergy and people appear, during an age in which corruptions and vice ruled unrestrained! Wherever in the heathen world the name of Rome was heard, the ministers of a despised creed shone as true lights among men, and that not only in contrast with the surrounding gloom, but even when compared with the vaunted splendour of succeeding [and nominally Christian] centuries. It is true that men who delight to trace in the whole chronicle of the world the continued onward progress of mankind in religious as well as in intellectual advancement, [and ever to attribute to some occult tendency (from us, in these less prosperous days, unfortunately veiled!) towards ultimate perfection what a more vulgar historical philosophy ascribes to the beneficent agency of a Providential scheme,—it is true that such men, ever willing to contrast the imagined lesser brilliancy of a more remote with the so-called splendour of a less distant period,] may point to the vagaries of Alexandrian philosophy or the pernicious fanaticism of Phrygian heresy:—we may with more justice assert the ordinary practice of the Church in matters of discipline, as convincing proof that the high standard of clerical morality was far from being one of theory alone1.
During the whole course of the three centuries, which occupy our more immediate attention, we discern the clergy engaged in a constant and successful struggle against the prevailing depravity of the age—[a struggle, whose progress and results, often hardly to be appreciated at the time, appear most prominently at a subsequent period in the improved legislation of Constantine and Justinian ;—] we see one Pagan corruption after another victoriously attacked by these true soldiers of the Cross, and the line of demarcation between the Church and the world without becoming every day more and more clearly defined. The faithful, as their numbers and estimation increased, found themselves in perpetually new relations with those whom they looked upon as the sworn servants of the powers of darkness. The piety and judgment of their spiritual guides are frequently in requisition to assist them in some new difficulty, or preserve them in some unheard-of temptation;—[whether, as in the very earliest of the Christian writers, the depth of the prevailing corruption is rather occasionally hinted at than systematically depicted;—or, as in the more fervid pages of Cyprian and Tertullian, every shade of the surrounding blackness is portrayed till the meanest of the Christian virtues acquires redoubled dignity by the contrast.]
There is no subject on which the Latin Fathers bestow more earnestness or eloquence than on their frequent 1 Cyp. Ep. 4.
exhortations to abstain from all share in those theatrical exhibitions which were established wherever the Roman sway was acknowledged. Not only was the Christian disciple to avoid gladiatorial shows, to abolish which, in a less hopelessly corrupt age, a moral code of no such scrupulous severity as that of the Gospel might have sufficed, but his foot was on no occasion to be polluted by entering the accursed precincts of the amphitheatre. The most learned and most energetic of the early Fathers* has brought into play all his learning and all his energy to prove the idolatrous origin of amphitheatrical sports, and to lay before his readers all the heathenish and unbridled passions invariably excited by the crowded arena. Cyprian t, on the other hand, turning away the attention of his people from such vain, earthly frivolities as these, exhorts them to fix the spiritual glance on that more illustrious contest, where the race of immortality is run by the competitors for a more enduring than any earthly kingdom; where, instead of the pomp of curule magistracy and the multitudes of an assembled nation, the spectators are the Lord of all himself, with the innumerable company of angels, and the assembly of the just made perfect.
This latter passage is but one instance out of many we might produce, from which we learn how well those great leaders of the Church, men of action as well as of thought, knew how to divert into evangelical channels,
* Tertullian, De Spectaculis, passim. t Cyprian, De Opere et Eleem. p. 244, [cc. 21, 22. ed. Baluz.]
without extinguishing, an activity and enthusiasm so long misdirected, and from an instrument of so much past evil to prepare stores of future good.
But it was not merely by vague declamation that the purity of the Church was preserved; for the violation of such paternal injunctions was visited with ecclesiastical penalties1; and it was an universal rule of canonical discipline that no one who performed the functions of a "lanista"* was to enjoy the privileges of a member of the Christian body2. The same severe teacher, in the treatise we have just quoted, strives to disabuse his readers of the fatal idea which would limit idolatry to the mere bowing down before graven images, and repudiates that pliable morality which permitted members of the Christian
1 Thus Cyprian (Ep. 4), in answer to Pomponius, who had consulted him and the other bishops as to certain virgins and deacons guilty of incontinence, after quoting passages to shew the heinousness of the crime and its foulness as adultery to the Divine husband, advises that the erring persons should perform full penitence, and not be re-admitted to the Church till after sufficient evidence of their having forsaken their evil courses, and the lapse of a considerable period of repentance. He also dwells on the duty of those in authority in the Church to despise the strictures of men, and act with a single eye to the glory of God.
* Tertullian, De Idololatria, c. 11.
3 Thus Cyprian (Ep. 2), having been consulted by Euchratius, as to whether he should admit to the Communion a certain actor and theatrical teacher, orders his exclusion, and, in case of his pleading poverty, desires that he be supported from the church-funds ;—they not sufficing, he might be transferred to Carthage for support.
Church to gain a livelihood by pandering to the requirements of Paganism. "Tota die ad hanc partem zelus fidei perorabit, ingemens Christianum ab idolis in ecclesiam venire; attollere ad Deum Patrem manus matres idolorum; his manibus adorare, quae foris adversus Deum adorantur; eas manus admovere corpori Domini, quae demoniis corpora conferunt*." The horror which he proceeds to express against servants of the Lord who devoted themselves to science, literature or commerce, was shared by all the stricter party in the Church: and however unsuited such sentiments may be to those later times into which unthinking zeal has transplanted them, it is evident that in those perilous days such (as it would now be called) fanatical severity tended not a little to widen that salutary gulf which was fixed between the faithful few and the unbelieving many.
It was the same strict and scrupulous morality (repulsive to so many of our own day, who can hardly avoid identifying it with that merciless intolerance, the offspring of its combination with the "secular arm" at a later period) which introduced the severity of the canons against the lapsed1. The opinion of the most reasonable party in the Church on this much-disputed question may be found expressed in a letter of the Roman clergy to Cyprian t; "Adeant ad limen ecclesise, sed non utique
* De Idololatria, c. 7, &e.
1 Instances of this severity may be seen in Cyprian, Epp. 15, 16, 17, 20, 27.
t Cypr. Ep. 30. [c. 7 ]