The relation of Christianity to the Roman state poses even deeper questions than those raised in the preceding paragraphs. As we have hinted, we see here two powers, the power of Christ and the power of Cssar. In one of his parables Jesus declared that new wine could not safely be put into old wineskins, for if it were, the skins would break and the wine would be lost. Did that prove to be true in the case of the Roman Empire and the Christian Gospel? Would "the exceeding greatness of the power" destroy the "earthen vessels" and in the process itself be dissipated or be gravely and perhaps irreparably weakened?
To what extent, if at all, were the "decline and fall of the Roman Empire" due to Christianity? Again and again, as we have seen, while Christianity was spreading, the accusation was made that it was bringing mortal illness to the Empire and to the structure of
Grsco-Roman society. Repeatedly the Christian apologists addressed themselves to answering that charge. Outstanding was the City of God of Augustine, but this was not by any means the only work evoked by the complaint, nor the last. The accusation has more than once been renewed in modern times.
The Christian apologists, far from admitting the truth of the indictment, insisted that, instead of weakening the Empire, Christians were actually strengthening it. Thus in the first half of the second century The Epistle to Diognetus declared: "What the soul is to the body, that are Christians to the world. . . . The Soul is imprisoned in the body, yet preserves that very body; and Christians are confined in the world as in a prison, yet they hold the world together." As we have seen, Tertullian insisted that Christians did more than pagans for the Emperor, that they regarded him as appointed by God, and held that chaos was prevented only by the continued existence of the Roman Empire. Origen said that by their prayers Christians were of more service to the realm than if they had fought for it in the legions, for by their petitions they "vanquish all demons who stir up war . . . and [who] disturb the peace." Which were right, the critics or the apologists?
In attempting to find the answer to this question, we must bear in mind several facts. First we must recall that the symptoms of mortal illness were present in the Grsco-Roman world before Christ was born. Precisely what were all of the causes scholars have never agreed, but as to the sickness of that region in the first century before Christ there can be no debate. To be sure, in every culture, even at the height of its prosperity, evidences of serious weakness can be found and are by no means conclusive proof of impending collapse.
However, in the second place, in the century before Christ was born the evidences of disintegration were so palpable in wars, in the passing of the old order, and in moral corruption, that the thoughtful feared early collapse. From this disaster the Mediterranean Basin was saved by Julius Cssar and Augustus Cssar, especially the latter. Through the structure devised by Augustus with the Emperor as its head, peace, the pax Romana, was established almost coincidentally with the coming of Christ. Then followed a period of material prosperity hitherto unequalled in the Mediterranean world — although paralleled by a somewhat similar era in the contemporary China under the Han dynasty. No wonder that Rome and the Empire were regarded as the bulwarks of civilization against anarchy.
Yet, in the third place, we must note that the principate devised by Augustus did not cure but only temporarily halted the course of the disease from which Grsco-Roman culture was suffering. Except for the political structure given it by Augustus, that culture was ceasing to say or to do anything substantially new. In philosophy the only fresh system of consequence which emerged in the first two centuries of the Empire, so prosperous materially, was Neoplatonism, and that was chiefly a development from the earlier Pla-tonism and may possibly have in part owed to Christianity the stimulus which brought it into being. After the first century with its Augustan Age and the generation which followed it, no contributions of first class importance were made in literature or art. It was only through Christianity that a major impulse was at work to stir spirits in a jaded world to fresh creation. By the end of the second century the remedies applied by Augustus had begun to fail. Indeed, they may have aggravated the malady. Certainly the disease was breaking out afresh.
As a fourth fact we muse note that the disease could not accurately be traced to Christianity. It had appeared before that faith had been born. Its fresh outbreak in the closing decades of the second century was before Christians were sufficiently numerous to have become its inciting cause.
A fifth consideration is the fact that Christianity did not prevent the disease from running its course and bringing the demise of the Roman Empire. Christianity did not save the Graco-Roman stage of civilization. If it was not the source of the disease from which Graco-Roman culture suffered, neither did it heal that culture of its illness.
As a closely related fact we do well also to recall that at its very outset Christianity had not saved the Jewish community from which it sprang nor had it brought even a temporary pause in the mad, headlong course which led that community to futile rebellion against Roman rule and to the destruction of Jerusalem and of the temple which had been the centre of Jewish worship. Jesus had clearly foreseen the tragic climax towards which events were heading, had offered an alternative course through which the catastrophe could have been avoided, but had the heart-breaking experience of meeting blind rejection.
A seventh observation is not so much a fact as a comment. It may be that Christianity could not save either Graco-Roman civilization or the Jewish society which centred in and found its symbol in Jerusalem and the temple. Both may have been founded on presuppositions so contrary to the Christian Gospel that they had to pass before the Gospel could begin to find free expression. We do well to remind ourselves again and again that it was official representatives of Judaism and the Roman Empire who brought Jesus to his death, because they sensed more or less clearly that if he were loyally and consistently followed the religious structure and the political system of which they were the respective custodians and to which they were bound by self-interest would disappear. Certainly Jesus, as Stephen and others of the early Christians clearly discerned, rendered the temple and its elaborate sacrifices unnecessary, and, as Paul declared, had made it obvious that the legal road of earning the favour of God was worse than a blind alley and led away from the path to true life. As Augustine saw, what he called the earthly city, based upon force, pride, the love of human praise, the desire for domination, and the self-interest represented by the Roman Empire, had value in the restraint of wickedness and the preservation of order, but was basically different from the city of God, for (he latter was built upon quite other foundations. The kind of power which had brought the Roman Empire into being was diametrically opposite to the power of God dramatically and decisively displayed in the cross. When Paul said that Christ crucified was a stumbling-block to the Jews and sheer folly to the Gentiles, namely, the Greeks and the Romans, and that the ways through which the Greeks were seeking wisdom did not bring them to the wisdom of God as revealed in the cross, he was stating unvarnished fact. If the Gospel was not to be obscured, Christianity had to break free from Judaism and the Roman Empire would have to pass.
An eighth set of facts is one which we are to see somewhat elaborated in our account of the next major period in the history of Christianity, but which we must briefly summarize here to enable us to give a tentative answer to the question posed to us by the coincidence of the progressive decline of Rome with the seeming triumph of Christianity. It was in the western portions of Europe, where the collapse of the Roman Empire was most marked, that Christianity was to display its greatest vigour in succeeding centuries. Indeed, the near disappearance of Grsco-Roman culture in that region gave to Christianity one of its greatest opportunities. By being largely freed from the incubus of the Roman state and of the closely associated cultural heritage of Greece and Rome, the kind of power which was of the essence of the Gospel was given freer course than it had been accorded under the professedly Christian Emperors. This was akin to the fashion in which that power displayed itself in great might in that wing of Christianity which broke through its Jewish integuments and ceased to be a Jewish sect in contrast with the nervelessness of the strain of Christianity represented by the Ebionites and which attempted to remain within Judaism.
In this connexion we must also anticipate the next chronological sections of our story by noting that Christianity was the means by which the remnants of Grsco-Roman civilization were transmitted to Western Europe and that in the East, where the dwindling Roman Empire continued and passed over into the Greek Byzantine Empire, it was Christianity which reinforced the state, helped to give it cohesion, and put spirit in its defense against the onslaughts of its enemies.
We shall also be recording, when that stage of our narrative is reached, that on the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean the conquering force, Arabic Islam, which overthrew Roman rule in those areas, proved too strong for the kind of power represented in Christianity, and the churches slowly faded out.
May we now attempt to summarize in a few words what the evidence seems to show of the relation of Christianity to the decline of the Roman Empire and of the civilization associated with it? Christianity was not the basic cause of the "fall of Rome." Yet it did not prevent that "fall." Whether it retarded or hastened it we cannot certainty know. In the segment of the Empire which continued with Constantinople as its nucleus Christianity undoubtedly prolonged the life of the Empire and later it was to aid in what purported to be a revival of that Empire in the West. In the West it became the vehicle by which much of Grsco-Roman culture was transmitted to a subsequent age. Christians also were a major instrument in passing on much of that culture to the Arabs who overwhelmed the eastern and southern portions of the Empire. While Christianity helped to perpetuate more or less extensive elements of Grsco-Roman civilization, it placed those elements in a new context. Where, in the West, the disintegration of the old came in such fashion that Christianity was partially emancipated, that faith had a much larger share in moulding life than the Roman Empire had permitted it.
Was this article helpful?
Tap into your inner power today. Discover The Untold Secrets Used By Experts To Tap Into The Power Of Your Inner Personality Help You Unleash Your Full Potential. Finally You Can Fully Equip Yourself With These “Must Have” Personality Finding Tools For Creating Your Ideal Lifestyle.