Page images

Such were these that must be called the ancienta est and most virgin times between Christ and Constantine. Nor was this general contagion in their actions, and not in their writings: who is ignorant of the foul errors, the ridiculous wresting of scripture, the heresies, the vanities thick sown through the volumes of Justin Martyr, Clemens, Origen, Tertullian, and others of eldest time? Who would think him fit to write an apology for Christian faith to the Roman senate, that would tell them “how of the angels,” which he must needs mean those in Genesis called the sons of God, “mixing with women were begotten the devils," as good Justin Martyr in his Apology told them ? **

Now besides all this, who knows not how many superstitious works are ingraffed into the legitimate writings of the fathers? And of those books that pass for authentic, who knows what hath been tampered withal, what hath been razed out, what hath been inserted ? Besides the late legerdemain of the papists, that which Sulpitius writes concerning Origen's books, gives us cause vehemently to suspect, there hath been packing of old. In the third chap. of his 1st Dialogue we may read what wrangling the bishops and monks had about the reading or not reading of Origen; some objecting that he was corrupted by heretics, others answering that all such books had been so dealt with. How then shall I trust these times to lead me, that testify so ill of leading themselves ? Certainly of their defects their own witness may be best received, but of the reclitude and sincerity of their life and doctrine, to judge rightly, we must judge by that which was to be their rule.

But it will be objected, that this was an unsettled state of the church, wanting the temporal magistrate to Suppress the licence of false brethren, and the extravas gancy of still new opinions ; a time not imitable for church-government, where the temporal and spiritual power did not close in one belief, as under Constantine. I am not of opinion to think the church a vine in this respect, because, as they take it, she cannot subsist without clasping about the elm of worldly strength and felicity, as if the heavenly city could not support itself without the props and buttresses of secular authority. They extol Constantine because he extolled them; as our homebred monks in their histories blanch the kings their benefactors, and brand those that went about to be their correctors. If he had curbed the growing pride, avarice, and luxury of the clergy, then every page of his story should have swelled with his faults, and that which Zozimus the heathen writes of him should have come in to boot : we should have heard then in every declamation how he slew his nephew Commodus, a worthy man, his noble and eldest son Crispus, his wife Fausta, besides numbers of his friends ; then his cruel exactions, his unsoundness in religion, favouring the Arians that had been condemned in a council, of which himself sat as it were president; his hard measure and bavishment of the faithful and invincible Athanasius; his living unbaptized almost to his dying day; these blurs are too apparent in his life. But since he must needs be the loadstar of reformation, as some men clate ter, it will be good to see further his knowledge of religion what it was, and by that we may likewise

guess at the sincerity of his times in those that were not here tical, it being likely that he would converse with the famousest prelates (for so he had made them) that were to be found for learning.

A pretty scantling of his knowledge may be taken ** by the excessive devotion, that I may not say superstia

* *

tion, both of him and his mother Helena, to find out the cross on which Christ suffered, that had long lain under the rubbish of old ruins ; (a thing which the disciples and kindred of our Saviour might with more ease have done, if they had thought it a pious duty ;) some of the nails whereof he put into his helmet, to bear off blows in battle, others he fastened among the studs of his bridle, to fulfil (as he thought, or his court bishops persuaded him) the prophecy of Zechariah ; " And it shall be that which is in the bridle shall be holy to the Lord.” Part of the cross, in which he thought such virtue to reside, as would prove a kind of Palladium to save the city wherever it remained, he caused to be laid up in a pillar of porphyry by his statue. **

How should then the dim taper of this emperor's age, that had such need of snuffing, extend any beam to our times, wherewith we might hope to be better lighted, than by those luminaries that God hath set up to shine to us far nearer hand. And what reformation he wrought for his own time, it will not be ainiss to consider ; he appointed certain times for fasts and feasts, built stately churches, gave large immunities to the clergy, great riches and promotions to bishops, gave and ministered occasion to bring in a deluge of ceremonies, thereby either to draw in the heathen by a resemblance of their rites, or to set a gloss upon the simplicity and plainness of christianity; which, to the gorgeous solemnities of paganism, and the sense of the world's children, seemed but a homely and yeomanly religion; for the beauty of inward sanctity was not within their prospect.

So that in this manner the prelates, both then and ever since, coming from a mean and plebeian life on a sudden to be lords of stately palaces, rich furniture, delicious fare, and princely attendance, thought the plain

and homespun verity of Christ's gospel unfit any longer to hold their lordships acquaintance, unless the poor threadbare matron were put into better clothes : her chaste and modest vail, surrounded with celestial beams, they overlaid with wanton tresses, and in a flaring tire bespeckled her with all the gaudy allurements of a whore.

Thus flourished the church with Constantine's wealth, and thereafter were the effects that followed ; his son Constantius proved a flat Arian, and his nephew Julian an apostate, and there his race ended : the church that before by insensible degrees welked and impaired, now with large steps went down hill decaying: at this time Antichrist began first to put forth his horn, and that saying was common, that former times had wooden chalices and golden priests; but they, golden chalices and wooden priests. ****

Now, lest it should be thought that something else might ail this author thus to hamper the bishops of those days, I will bring you the opinion of three the famousest men for wit and learning that Italy at this day glories of, whereby it may be concluded for a received opinion, even among men professing the Romish faith, that Constantine marred all in the church. Dante, in his 19th Canto of Inferno, hath thus, as I will render it you in English blank verse:

Ah Constantine! of how much ill was cause
Not thy conversion, but those ricb domains

That the first wealthy pope receiv'd of thee! So, in his 20th Canto of Paradise, he makes the like complaint, and Petrarch seconds him in the same mind in his 108th sonnet, which is wiped out by the inquisitor in some editions ; speaking of the Roman Antichrist as nierely bred up by Constantine.

Founded in chaste and humble poverty,
'Gainst them that rais'd thee dost thou lift thy horn,
Impudent whore, where hast thou plac'd thy hope?
In thy adulterers, or thy ill-got wealth ?
Another Constantine comes not in haste.

Ariosto of Ferrara, after both these in time, but equal in fame, following the scope of his poem in a difficult knot how to restore Orlando his chief hero to his lost senses, brings Astolfo the English knight up into the moon, where St. John, as he feigns, niet him. Cant. 34.

And to be shurt, at last his guide him brings
Into a goodly valley, where he sees
A mighty mass of things strangely confus'd,
Things that on earth were lost, or were abus'd.

And amongst these so abused things, listen what he met withal, under the conduct of the Evangelist.

Then pass’d he to a flowery mountain green,
Which once smelt sweet, now stinks as odiously:
This was that gift (if you the truth will have)
That Constantine to good Sylvestro gave.

And this was a truth well known in England before this poet was born, as our Chaucer's Ploughiman shall tell you by and by upon another occasion. By all these circumstances laid together, I do not see how it can be disputed what good this Emperor Constantine wrought to the church, but rather whether ever any, though perhaps not wittingly, set open a door to more mischief in Christendom. There is just cause, therefore, that when the prelates cry out, Let the church be reformed according to Constantine, it should sound to a judicious ear no otherwise, than if they should say, Make us rich, make us lofty, make us lawless; for if any under him

« PreviousContinue »