Page images

350, when Magnentius, one of his own officers, with the view of getting himself declared emperor, contrived to procure the assassination of Constans. The usurper, however, did not long enjoy the fruits of his perfidy; for Constantius, justly incensed by his rebellious conduct, marched an army against him, and repulsing him at the outset, Magnentius, transported with rage and despair at his ill success, and apprehending the most terrible and ignominious death from the resentment of the conqueror, put a termination to his own life. Thus Constantius, in the year 353, became sole monarch of the Roman empire, which he governed until the year 361. Marching at the head of his army, in that year, to chastise the presumption of his own kinsman, Julian, whom the forces entrusted to his command in Gaul, had, in an hour of victory saluted with the title of Augustus, he was arrested by the hand of death, and expired at Mopsucrene in Cilicia, leaving the vacant throne to Julian.

None of the sons of Constantine the Great, inherited the spirit and genius of their father. They, nevertheless, so far trode in his steps, as to extend their fostering care to the Catholic religion, to accelerate its progress through the empire, and to continue to undermine and abolish the system of paganism.

But the controversy which had arisen between Arius : and Alexander, relative to the sonship of Christ, was far

from being put to rest by the decision of the council of Nice. The doctrine of Arius, indeed, had been condemned by a very large majority-he himself was banished to Illyricum, and his followers compelled to assent to the confession of faith composed by the synod-his writings also had been proscribed as heretical, and the punishment of death decreed against all who were conricted of the crime of harbouring them in their houses. But persecuting edicts cannot extend their dominion over the thoughts, and it is scarcely less difficult to impose an effectual restraint upon the tongue. Persecution has generally been found favourable to whatever cause it has been directed against; it some how enlists the sensibilities of our nature on the side of the persecuted party; and disposes the mind to a more candid and impartial examination of the question in dispute, than we should otherwise possess. It is perhaps too much to affirm with Dr. Middleton, that “ truth was never known to be on the persecuting side;" * an impartial examination, however, of the opinions and proceedings of both Arians and Athanasians on this occasion, serves in some degree to justify the maxim, and convinces me that they were equally remote from the truth, even as they were alike well disposed to persecute each other in proportion as either party obtained the means of doing it. Only it is due to the orthodox party to say, that they took the lead in punishing heretics with death, and persuaded the emperor to destroy those whom they could not convert.

When the undivided government of the empire centered in the hands of Constantius, he evinced a strong predilection for the Arian side of the controversy, and Arianism became fashionable at court. The emperor favoured only the bishops of that party. Paul, the orthodox prelate of the see of Constantinople, was ejected from his office by the emperor's order, and Macedonius substituted in his room. This man adopted a scheme different from either party, and contended that the Son was not consubstantial, but of a like substance with the Father, openly propagating this new theory, after thrusting himself into the bishoprick of Paul; and thus, by the addition of a single letter, affecting to settle the whole dispute. Frivolous as was this distinction, it enraged

* Preface to his Free Inquiry, p. 8. 4to. edit.

the orthodox party, who, filled with rage and resentment, rose in a body to oppose Hermogenes, the officer whom Constantius had sent to introduce him unto his episcopal throne, burnt down his house, and drew him round the streets by his heels until they had murdered him.

ATHANASIUS, who had rendered such essential service to Alexander, his bishop, in managing the dispute with Arius at the council of Nice, had, by this time, risen to great popularity, and in reality was become the oracle of the orthodox party. We are supposed to be indebted to him for the creed which bears his name, and which fills so eminent a place in the liturgy of our national church. Even to this day he is extolled by such respectable writers as Milner and Hawies, as a prodigy of evangelical light. But whatever may be said of the soundness of his speculative creed, he was evidently a man of aspiring views and of persecuting principles. In a letter to Epictetus, bishop of Corinth, alluding to some heretical opinions then prevalent, he says, “I wonder that your piety hath borne these things, and that you did not immediately put those heretics under restraint, and propose the true faith to them, that if they would not forbear to contradict they might be declared heretics, for it is not to be endured that these things should be either said or heard amongst Christians.” And upon another occasion, “they ought to be held in universal hatred," says he, “ for opposing the truth,"--comforting himself that the emperor, when duly informed, would put a stop to their wickedness, and that they would not be longlived. In one of his letters he exhorts those to whom he wrote, to “hold fast the confession of the fathers, and to reject all who should speak more or less than was contained in it. And, in his first oration against the Arians, he declares in plain terms, “ that the expressing a person's sentiments in the words of scripture, was no VOL. I.




sufficient proof of orthodoxy, because the devil bimself used scripture words to cover his wicked designs upon our Saviour, and that heretics were not to be received, though they made use of the very expressions of orthodoxy itself.”

The scriptures were now no longer the standard of the Christian faith. What was orthodox, and what heterodox, was, from henceforward, to be determined by the decisions of fathers and councils; and religion propagated not by the apostolic methods of persuasion, accompanied with the meekness and gentleness of Christ, but by imperial edicts and decrees; nor were gainsayers to be brought to conviction by the simple weapons of reason and scripture, but persecuted and destroyed. It cannot surprise us, if after this we find a continual fluctuation of the public faith, just as the prevailing party obtained the imperial authority to support them; or that we should meet with little else in ecclesiastical history than violence and cruelties, committed by men who had wholly departed from the simplicity of the Christian doctrine and profession; men enslaved to avarice and ambition; and carried away with views of temporal grandeur, high preferments, and large revenues.

To dwell upon the disgraceful cabals, the violent invectives, and slanderous recriminations of those ruling factions, would afford little edification to the reader, and certainly no pleasure to the writer. Were we disposed to give credit to the complaints of the orthodox against the Arians, we must certainly regard them as the most execrable set of men that ever lived. They are loaded with all the crimes that can possibly be committed, and represented as bad, if not worse, than infernal spirits. And had the writings of the Arians not been destroyed, we should, no doubt, have found as many and grievous charges laid by them, perhaps with equal justice, against the Athanasians. Constantius banished Athanasius from his bishoprick at Alexandria, and wrote a letter to the citizens, in which he terms him “an impostor, a corrupter of men's souls, a disturber of the city, a pernicious fellow, one convicted of the worst crimes, not to be expiated by his suffering death ten times;" and a bishop, zamed George, was put into his see, whom this eloquent emperor is pleased to style “a most venerable person, and the most capable of all men to instruct them in heavenly things.” Athanasius, however, in his usual style, calls him “an idolator and hangman; and one capable of all kinds of violence, rapine, and murders;" and whom he actually charges with committing the most impious actions and outrageous cruelties.

The truth is, that the clergy of the Catholic church were now become the principal disturbers of the empire; and the pride of the bishops, and the fury of the people on each side had grown to such a height, that the election or restoration of a bishop seldom took place in the larger cities, without being attended with scenes of slaughter. Athanasius was several times banished and restored at the expense of blood. What shall we make of the Christianity of the man who could act thus, or countenance such proceedings? Had Athanasius been influenced by the benign and peaceable spirit of the gospel, he would at once have withdrawn himself from such disgraceful scenes, and preferred to worship God in the society of only a dozen day-labourers in a cellar or a garret, to all the honour and all the emolument which he could derive from being exalted to the dignity of archbishop of Alesandria, on such degrading conditions. One can scarcely forbear contrasting his conduct with the behaviour of Him, whose servant he professed to be. “When Jesus Perceived that they would come and take him by force, and make hin a king, he departed again into a mountain

[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »