The four and a half centuries covered in the preceding four chapters may seem disheartening for any who would share the dream of Jesus for the coming of the kingdom of God. What had happened to that vision with its confident assertion that the reign of God was at hand? Any student who seeks to understand the nature and the course of human history and especially any Christian who is concerned with the fashion in which the God in Whom he believes deals with men and with what can be expected in history from the Christian Gospel must take this period into his total purview.
In trenchant phrases and vivid parables Jesus had pictured the characteristics of the kingdom of God and of those who are its members. All men of goodwill must gladly, or perhaps sadly, admit that if mankind were to conform to the ideals which he set forth, men would no longer hate one another and be obsessed with the competitive struggle for food, clothing, and shelter, but would live in friendly cooperation and in that living would find an abundance for their physical needs in humble, glad service to one another. Yet Jesus had been crucified. His disciples were convinced that he had risen from the dead in conquering, radiant life and that through the Spirit which issued from the Father and Jesus men could be born into that life. They were impelled by the faith that ultimately God's gracious will would be fully done and all creation would be freed from bondage, entering into the glorious liberty of the children of God, and that God would sum up all things in Christ, whether in heaven or on earth.
In that faith the early Christians had gone forth. They had shared it with others. The seemingly incredible had happened. Although beginning as one of the numerically smallest of hundreds of competing religious groups in the Gra-co-Roman world, within five centuries Christianity, the religion which arose out of their faith, had won the professed allegiance of the vast majority within that world, a world which then embraced the largest single aggregation of civilized mankind. Out of that faith had grown the Christian churches, the largest of them the Catholic Church. By an amazing burst of vitality within a culture which had ceased to think or to say much that was new, that faith had given birth to creative thinking in theology, to new forms of worship, to an Empire-wide ecclesiastical organization, and, even more significantly, had transformed thousands of indi viduals and had started them on the road towards the goal "of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus."
Then decline, slow but prolonged, had set in. In winning the professed allegiance of the peoples of the basin of the Mediterranean the process had been completed by a mass conversion which watered down the quality of living. Swamped by these millions, the Catholic Church had relaxed its discipline and in some areas had apparently all but given up attempts to enforce it. Efforts of growing minorities to a full attainment of the Christian ideal had issued in monasticism, with its communities and its solitaries. But many of the latter had gone to revolting extremes, sometimes of bizarre exhibitionism quite contrary to the Gospel ideal, and after the first burst of enthusiasm and devotion in their founding, the former tended to run down and to become characterized by uninspired routine or even by indolent self-indulgence.
Then the Roman Empire and with it the Grseco-Roman world had disintegrated. Christianity had not saved it or brought it into conformity with the ideals set forth in the Gospels or the epistles of the early apostles. The Church itself was divided by bitter dissensions and the prey of power-loving ecclesiastics and princes. The invasion of the Moslem Arabs flooded about half of the territory which might be called "Christendom" and within it the churches dwindled and ceased to put forth new expressions of vitality. North of the Mediterranean, in regions unconquered by the Arabs, floods of barbarians poured in, most of them at the outset non-Christians and most of their Christians Arians and so bringing weakening division to the Christian ranks. These invaders from the north and north-east came in successive waves, and recovery, conversion, and partial assimilation had not been completed for one until another arrived and the level of Christian living was again lowered.
Christianity persisted, but the creative activity which it had shown in the first five centuries in fresh movements and in thought declined and ir large areas disappeared. To be sure, it gave stability to the Byzantine realms and strengthened their resistance against invasions. Partly under its egis much of Graco-Roman culture went on, and Christians were the chief channels through which it was transmitted to the Arabs. However, that achievement, as we have suggested, did not ensure the preservation of the Gospel, but rather might obscure and weaken it, for in its basic assumptions and convictions that culture contradicted the Gospel. Christianity had not brought into the likeness of the Gospel the remnants of the urban life of the Mediterranean world. The largest "Christian" city was Constantinople, and in spite of its many churches and the disappearance of the pagan cults, one may question whether it more nearly approximated the ideals of the Gospel than had pre-Christian Rome. "Christian" Rome of the year 950, although it was the religious capital of Western Europe and was kept alive by its churches and the pilgrims who flocked to them, was very much smaller than the burgeoning metropolis of the early Emperors and probably was as iniquitous, even if not in all the same ways. Nor, although it was theoretically dominant in them, did Christianity bring to its high standards rural Asia Minor and Greece or the predominantly agricultural Western Europe of these dark centuries. Indeed, in chronic wars with their accompaniment of cruelty, callousness, robbery, sexual laxity, and the glorification of brute force, the Western Europe of the middle of the tenth century may have been further from the standards of the Gospel than was the same area five hundred years earlier. In its numerical strength Christianity was not nearly as important in the year 950 as it had been in the year 500, and the states which professed allegiance to it did not loom as large in the total world scene in the middle of the tenth century as they had at the close of the fifth.
Where, then, was the "exceeding greatness of the power"? The vessels were Still palpably earthen: had they proved too much so for "the power"? Was the weakness of God as seen on the cross actually stronger than men as Paul had declared, or had the sin of man proved too much tor it? We must frankly recognize the plain historical facts which we have summarized in the preceding paragraphs and the equally certain fact that Christianity has never regained most of the territory which it lost to Islam.
We may not be able to discern the full answer to the questions which the story raises. However, we must note that Christianity had won to a professed allegiance the earlier invaders from the North who had settled within what had been the boundaries of the Roman Empire and was even moving beyond the former Roman limes into fresh territories. We must recall the fashion in which many Christians protested against the nonChristian conduct of their fellows in both East and West and the forms of instruction and discipline which the Church in the West adopted to bring into partial conformity to its standards the rude barbarians of that region. We must remember that in much of the West in some of the darkest days the Church had endeavoured, not always unsuccessfully, to protect the weak and had preserved and furthered education and orderly living. We must, moreover, remind ourselves that even in this brief survey we have met individuals of outstanding and wide influence, such as John of Damascus, John the Almsgiver, Cotumba, Gregory the Great, and Boniface, who clearly bore the impress of the Gospel and were admired, and rightly so, as its exemplars. For every one whose memory our scanty records have preserved, presumably there were many thousands, also exemplars of Christian faith and life, of whom no trace survives. In them the kingdom of God was present and they were both light and salt. Through them the faith was spread and nourished. Always there continued to be darkness and decay but had it not been for them the darkness would have been more intense and the decay more noisome.
We must also call attention to the fact that although to a large degree the kind of power seen in governments and in institutions, including even those of the Church, was in contrast with that seen in the incarnation, the cross, and the resurrection, some governments proved less of an obstacle to the Gospel than did others. The Sassanid and the Arab states, for example, the one dominated by Zoroastrianism and the other by Islam, made the course of Christianity very difficult. The Christian Roman Emperors were both an aid and a hindrance. The order which they gave and their protection to the Church were of assistance, but their efforts at the control of the Church often compromised the Gospel and their friendship encouraged in the Church a kind of power which was the opposite of that seen in the Gospel. Much depended on the character of the monarch. Those who, like Alfred the Great, were earnestly endeavouring to rule as Christians were of more help than those who were not-The great Carolingians by their patronage, in spite of their use of armed force, facilitated the spread of Christianity and the reform of the Church by deeply Christian churchmen.
Moreover, as we have hinted, already, even in the darkest hours at the end of the ninth and the beginning of the tenth century, a fresh resurgence of vitality was evident in Christianity. It was fairly obvious in Byzantine realms but was also present in Western
Europe. In the next four centuries it was to carry Christianity over a larger proportion of the earth's surface than until\ then had been true of it or any other one religion, it was to issue in more fresh movements than had been seen since the first three centuries of the faith, and it was to stamp far more deeply the civilization of Europe than it had that of the Roman Empire. These results were especially marked in Western Europe, but to a less degree they were also seen in parts of Eastern Europe. To that stage of our story we must now turn.
Was this article helpful?
If Pregnancy Is Something That Frightens You, It's Time To Convert Your Fear Into Joy. Ready To Give Birth To A Child? Is The New Status Hitting Your State Of Mind? Are You Still Scared To Undergo All The Pain That Your Best Friend Underwent Just A Few Days Back? Not Convinced With The Answers Given By The Experts?