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upon virtue, the eye of the Christian teacher
sin. The first sought to amend men by extolling the beauty of holiness; the second by awakening the sentiment of remorse. Each method had its excellences and its defects. Philosophy was admirably fitted to dignify and ennoble, but altogether impotent to regenerate, mankind. It did much to encourage virtue, but little or nothing to restrain vice. A relish or taste for virtue was formed and cultivated, which attracted many to its practice; but in this, as in the case of all our other higher tastes, a nature that was once thoroughly vitiated became altogether incapable of appreciating it, and the transformation of such a nature, which was continually effected by Christianity, was confessedly beyond the power of philosophy. Experience has abundantly shown that men who are wholly insensible to the beauty and dignity of virtue, can be convulsed by the fear of judgment, can be even awakened to such a genuine remorse for sin as to reverse the current of their dispositions, detach them from the most inveterate habits, and renew the whole tenor of their lives.
But the habit of dilating chiefly on the darker side of human nature, while it has contributed much to the regenerating efficacy of Christian teaching, has not been without its disadvantages. Habitually measuring character by its aberrations, theologians, in their estimates of those strong and passionate natures in which great virtues are balanced by great failings, have usually fallen into a signal injustice, which is the more inexcusable, because in their own writings the Psalms of David are a conspicuous proof of what a noble, tender, and passionate nature could survive, even in an adulterer and a murderer. Partly, too, through this babit of operating through the sense of sin, and partly from a desire to show that man is in an abnormal and dislocated condition, they
1 There is a remarkable passage depraved, quoted by Origen in his of Celsus, on the impossibility of answer to him. restoring a nature once thoroughly
have continually propounded distorted and degrading views of human nature, have represented it as altogether under the empire of evil, and have sometimes risen to such a height of extravagance as to pronounce the very virtues of the heathen to be of the nature of sin. But nothing can be more certain than that that which is exceptional and distinctive in human nature is not its vice, but its excellence. It is not the sensuality, cruelty, selfishness, passion, or envy, which are all displayed in equal or greater degrees in different departments of the animal world; it is that moral nature which enables man apparently, alone of all created beings, to classify his emotions, to oppose the current of his desires, and to aspire after moral perfection. Nor is it less certain that in civilised, and therefore developed man, the good greatly preponderates over the evil. Benevolence is more common than cruelty ; the sight of suffering more readily produces pity than joy ; gratitude, not ingratitude, is the normal result of a conferred benefit. The sympathies of man naturally follow heroism and goodness, and vice itself is usually but an exaggeration or distortion of tendencies that are in their own nature perfectly innocent.
But these exaggerations of human depravity, which have attained their extreme limits in some Protestant sects, do not appear in the Church of the first three centuries. The sense of sin was not yet accompanied by a denial of the goodness that exists in man. Christianity was regarded rather as a redemption from error than from sin,' and it is a significant fact that the epithet 'well deserving, which the Pagans usually put upon their tombs, was also the favourite inscription in the Christian catacombs. The Pelagian controversy, the teaching of St. Augustine, and the progress of asceticism, gradually introduced the doctrine of the utter depravity of
1 This is well shown by Pressensé in his Hist. des Trois premiers Siècles,
At a very
man, which has proved in later times the fertile source of degrading superstition.
In sustaining and defining the notion of sin, the early Church employed the machinery of an elaborate legislation. Constant communion with the Church was regarded as of the very highest importance. Participation in the Sacrament was believed to be essential to eternal life. early period it was given to infants, and already in the time of St. Cyprian we find the practice universal in the Church, and pronounced by at least some of the Fathers to be ordinarily necessary to their salvation. Among the adults it was customary to receive the Sacrament daily, in some churches four times a week. Even in the days of persecution the only part of their service the Christians consented to omit was the half-secular agape.3 The clergy had power to accord or withhold access to the ceremonies, and the reverence with which they were regarded was so great that they were able to dictate their own conditions of communion.
From these circumstances there very naturally arose a vast system of moral discipline. It was always acknowledged that men could only rightly approach the sacred table in certain moral dispositions, and it was very soon added that the commission of crimes should be expiated by a period of penance, before access to the communion was granted. A.
* See a great deal of informa- of the most important, of the intion on this subject in Bingham's stitutions of early Christianity. Antiquities of the Christian Church Bingham shows that the adminis(Oxford, 1853), vol. v. pp. 370- tration of the Eucharist to infants 378. It is curious that those very continued in France till the twelfth noisy contemporary divines who century. profess to resuscitate the man- 2 See Cave's Primitive Chrisners of the primitive Church, and tianity, part i. ch. xi. At first the who lay so much stress on the Sacrament was usually received minutest ceremonial observances, every day; but this custom soon dehave left unpractised what was un- clined in the Eastern Church, and doubtedly one of the most uni- at last passed away in the West. versal, and was believed to be one 3 Plin. Ep. x. 97.
multitude of offences, of very various degrees of magnitude, such as prolonged abstinence from religious services, prenuptial unchastity, prostitution, adultery, the adoption of the profession of gladiator or actor, idolatry, the betrayal of Christians to persecutors, and paiderastia or unnatural love, were specified, to each of which a definite spiritual penalty was annexed. The lowest penalty consisted of deprivation of the Eucharist for a few weeks. More serious offenders were deprived of it for a year, or for ten years, or until the hour of death, while in some cases the sentence amounted to the greater excommunication, or the deprivation of the Eucharist for ever. During the period of penance the penitent was compelled to abstain from the marriage-bed, and from all other pleasures, and to spend his time chiefly in religious exercises. Before he was readmitted to comm
munion, be was accustomed publicly, before the assembled Christians, to appear
clad in sackcloth, with ashes strewn upon his head, with his hair shaven off, and thus to throw himself at the feet of the minister, to confess aloud his sins, and to implore the favour of absolution. The excommunicated man was not only cut off for ever from the Christian rites; he was severed also from all intercourse with his former friends. No Christian, on pain of being himself excommunicated, might eat with him or speak with him. He must live bated and alone in this world, and be prepared for damnation in the next.
This system of legislation, resting upon religious terrorism, forms one of the most important parts of early ecclesiastical history, and a leading object of the Councils was to develop or modify it. Although confession was not yet an habitual and universally obligatory rite, although it was only
· The whole subject of the printed in the library of Anglopenitential discipline is treated Catholic Theology), and also in minutely in Marshall's Penitential Bingham, vol. vii. Tertullian gives Discipline of the Primitive Church a graphic description of the public (first published in 1714, and re
penances, De Pudicit. v. 13,
exacted in cases of notorious sins, it is manifest that we have
this system, not potentially or in germ, but in full developed activity, an ecclesiastical despotism of the most crushing order. But although this recognition of the right of the clergy to withhold from men what was believed to be essential to their salvation, laid the foundation of the worst superstitions of Rome, it had, on the other hand, a very valuable moral effect. Every system of law is a system of education, for it fixes in the minds of men certain conceptions of right and wrong, and of the proportionate enormity of different crimes; and no legislation was enforced with more solemnity, or appealed more directly to the religious feelings, than the penitential discipline of the Church. More than, perhaps, any other single agency, it confirmed that conviction of the enormity of sin, and of the retribution that follows it, which was one of the two great levers by which Christianity acted
upon mankind. But if Christianity was remarkable for its appeals to the selfish or interested side of our nature, it was far more remarkable for the empire it attained over disinterested enthusiasm. The Platonist exhorted men to imitate God; the Stoic, to follow reason; the Christian, to the love of Christ. The later Stoics had often united their notions of excellence in an ideal sage, and Epictetus had even urged his disciples to set before them some man of surpassing excellence, and to imagine him continually near them; but the utmost the Stoic ideal could become was a model for imitation, and the admiration it inspired could never deepen into affection. It was reserved for Christianity to present to the world an ideal character, which through all the changes of eighteen centuries has inspired the hearts of men with an impassioned love; has shown itself capable of acting on all ages, nations, temperaments, and conditions; has been not only the highest pattern of virtue but the strongest incentive to its practice; and has exercised so deep an influence that it may be truly