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And the cause which is here assigned for the rejection of Christianity, by men of rank and learning among the heathens, namely, a strong antecedent contempt, accounts also for their silence concerning it. If they had rejected it upon examination, they would have written about it. They would have given their reasons. Whereas what men repudiate upon the strength of some prefixed persuasion, or from a settled contempt of the subject, of the persons who propose it, or of the manner in which it is proposed, they do not naturally write books about, or notice much in what they write upon other subjects.
The letters of the younger Pliny furnish an example of this silence, and let us in some measure, into the cause of it. From his celebrated correspondence with Trajan, we know that the Christian religion prevailed in a very considerable degree in the province over which he presided ; that it had excited his attention; that he had inquired into the matter, just so much as a Roman magistrate might be expected to inquire, viz. whether the religion contained any opinions dangerous to government; but that of its doctrines, its evidences, or its books, he had not taken the trouble to inform himself with any degree of care or correctness. But although Pliny had viewed Christianity in a nearer position, than most of his learned countrymen saw it in; yet he had regarded the whole with such negligence and disdain, (farther than as it seemed to concern his administration) that in more than two hundred and forty letters of his which have come down to us, the subject is never once again mentioned. If out of this number the two letters between him and Trajan had been lost, with what confidence would the obscurity of the Christian religion have been argued from Pliny's silence about it, and with how little truth.
The name and character, which Tacitus hath given to Christianity, "exitiablis superstitio," (a pernicious superstition) and by which two words he disposes of the whole question of the merits or demerits of the religion, afford a strong proof how little he knew, or concerned himself to know, about the matter. I apprehend that I shall not be contradicted, when I take upon me to assert, that no unbeliever of the present age would apply this epithet to the Christianity of the New Testament, or not allow that it was entirely unmerited. Read the instructions given, by a great teacher of the religion, to those very Roman converts, of whom Tacitus speaks; and given also a very few
years before the time of which he is speaking; and which are not, let it be observed, a collection of fine sayings, brought together from different parts of a large work, but stand in one entire passage of a public letter, without the intermixture of a single thought, which is frivolous or exceptionable. "Abhor that which is evil, cleave to that which is good. Be kindly affectioned one to another, with brotherly love, in honour preferring one another. Not slothful in business, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord, rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing instant in prayer, distributing to the necessity of saints, given to hospitality. Bless them which persecute you; bless, and curse not; rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep. Be of the same mind one towards another: mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate. Be not wise in your own conceits. Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men. If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men. Avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath, for it is written, Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord: therefore, if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst give him drink; for, in so doing, thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.
"Let every sou! be subject unto the higher powers, for there is no power but of God; the powers that be are ordained of God; whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God, and they that resist shall receive unto themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same, for he is the minister of God to thee for good: but if thou do that which is evil, be afraid, for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake: for, for this cause, pay ye tribute also, for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render, therefore, to all their dues; tribute, to whom tribute is due; custom, to whom custom; fear, to whom fear; honour to whom honour.
"Owe no man any thing, but to love one another; for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law: or this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not kill, thou shalt
not bear false witness, thou shalt not covet, and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. worketh no ill to his neighbour, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”
"And that, knowing the time, that now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand; let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. Let us walk honestly as in the day, not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying."*
Read this, and then think of exitiabilis superstitio!!Or if we be not allowed, in contending with heathen authorities, to produce our books against theirs, we may at least be permitted to confront theirs with one. another. Of this "pernicious superstition," what could Pliny find to blame, when he was led by his office, to institute something like an examination into the conduct and principles of the sect? He discovered nothing, but that they were wont to meet together on a stated day before it was light, and sing among themselves a hymn to Christ as a god, and to bind themselves by an oath, not to the commission of any wickedness, but not to be guilty of theft, robbery, or adultery: never to falsify their word, nor to deny a pledge committed to them, when called upon to return it.
Upon the words of Tacitus we may build the following observations:
First, That we are well warranted in calling the view, under which the learned men of that age beheld Christianity, an obscure and distant view. Had Tacitus known more of Christianity, of its precepts, duties, constitution, or design, however he had discredited the story, he would have respected the principle. He would have described the religion differently, though he had rejected it. It has been very satisfactorily shown, that the "superstition" of the Christians consisted in worshipping a person unknown to the Roman calendar; and that the perniciousness with which they were reproached, was nothing else but their opposition to the established polytheism: and this view of the matter, was just such a one as might be expected to occur to a mind, which held the fact in too much contempt to concern itself about the grounds and reasons of their conduct.
Secondly, We may from hence remark, how little reli
Rom. xii. 9. xiii. 13.
ance can be placed upon the most acute judgments, in subjects which they are pleased to despise; and which, of course, they from the first consider as unworthy to be inquired into. Had not Christianity survived to tell its own story, it must have gone down to posterity as a "pernicious superstition ;" and that upon the credit of Tacitus's account, much, I doubt not, strengthened by the name of the writer, and the reputation of his sagacity.
Thirdly, That this contempt prior to examination is an intellectual vice, from which the greatest faculties of mind are not free. I know not, indeed, whether men of the greatest faculties of mind are not the most subject to it. Such 'men feel themselves seated upon an eminence. Looking down from their height upon the follies of mankind, they behold contending tenets wasting their idle strength upon one another, with a 'common disdain of the absurdity of them all. This habit of thought, however comfortable to the mind which entertains it, or however natural to great parts, is extremely dangerous; and more apt than almost any other disposition to produce hasty and contemptuous, and, by consequence, erroneous judgments, both of persons and opinions.
Fourthly, We need not be surprised at many writers of that age not mentioning Christianity at all, when they who did mention it appear to have entirely misconceived its nature and character; and, in consequence of that misconception, to have regarded it with negligence and contempt.
To the knowledge of the greatest part of the learned heathens, the facts of the Christian history could only come by report. The books, probably, they had never looked into. The settled habit of their minds was, and long had been, an indiscriminate rejection of all reports of the kind. With these sweeping conclusions, truth hath no chance. It depends upon distinction. If they would not inquire, how should they be convinced? It might be founded in truth, though they who made no search might not discover it.
"Men of rank and fortune, of wit and abilities, are often found, even in Christian countries to be surprisingly ignorant of religion, and of every thing that relates to it. Such were many of the heathens. Their thoughts were all fixed upon other things, upon reputation and glory, upon wealth and power, upon luxury and pleasure, upon business or learning. They thought as they had reason to think, that the religion of their country was fable and forgery, an heap of inconsistent lies, which inclined them to sup
pose that other religions were no better. Hence it came to pass, that when the apostles preached the gospel, and wrought miracles in confirmation of a doctrine every way worthy of God, many Gentiles knew little or nothing of it, and would not take the least pains to inform themselves about it. This appears plainly from ancient history."*
I think it by no means unreasonable to suppose, that the heathen public, especially that part which is made up of men of rank and education, were divided into two classes; those who despised Christianity beforehand, and those who received it. In correspondency with which division of character, the writers of that age would also be of two classes, those who were silent about Christianity, and those who were Christians. A good man, who attended sufficiently to the Christian affairs, would become a Christian; after which his testimony ceased to be Pagan, and became Christian."
I must also add, that I think it sufficiently proved, that the notion of magic was resorted to by the heathen adversaries of Christianity, in like manner as that of diabolical agency had before been by the Jews. Justin Martyr alleges this as his reason for arguing from prophecy rather than from miracles. Origen imputes this evasion to Celsus; Jerome to Porphyry; and Lactantius to the heathen in general. The several passages which contain these testimonies will be produced in the next chapter. It being difficult however to ascertain in what degree this notion prevailed, especially amongst the superior ranks of the heathen communities, another, I think an adequate cause, has been assigned for their infidelity. It is probable that in many cases the two causes would operate together.
That the Christian miracles are not recited, or appealed to, by early Christian writers themselves, so fully or frequently as might have been expected.
I SHALL consider this objection, first, as it applies to the letters of the apostles, preserved in the New Testament; and secondly, as it applies to the remaining writings of other early Christians.
The epistles of the apostles are either hortatory or argumentative. So far as they were occupied in delivering lessons of duty, rules of public order, admonitions against
* Jortin's Dis, on the Christ. Rel. p. 66. ed. 4th.
↑ Hartley Obs, p. 119.