How the position of the Church changed!
Prior to Constantine the Great the “powers that be” were pagan and Christianity was outlawed and the object of relentless persecution. The world-empire during the early centuries of the new dispensation was the Roman empire. It was thoroughly pagan. And it exerted every effort, during these three early centuries of the new dispensation, to destroy the Cause of Christ in the midst of the world.
The entire picture changes, however, with the ascendancy to the throne of Constantine the Great. His Edict of Milan, issued in the year, 313, placed Christianity on an equal footing with heathen religions before the law. Constantine was sufficiently shrewd to recognize the value of Christianity to his empire. It was to his advantage rather than to his disadvantage to recognize and encourage the Christian religion. Having formally embraced it he is known as the first Christian emperor.
Julian made a final desperate effort to destroy Christianity. This effort, we have seen, ended in dismal failure.
From now on the position of the Church in the midst of the world undergoes a radical change. It becomes an institution of power and glory in the world. Whereas until now the powers of the world had ruled over the Church and sought to destroy it, the situation now is exactly reversed. The Church, more and more, began to rule over the world. And the leader in this new set-up of things was, as we may conjecture, the bishop of Rome. It is true that the barbarians later seek to destroy all civilization of the old Roman empire. First, it was the terrible Attila, leading the Huns, who sought the overthrow of the empire. Other barbarians also invaded Italy and the West, and were undeniably successful to a large extent. In the seventh and early part of the eighth century the Mohammedans swept in from the East, conquered North Africa, Spain, and swept in France. However, this mad onrush was checked in the year, 732, at the famous battle of Tour. And ultimately these barbarian attacks merely served to strengthen the position of the bishop of Rome, who emerged out of all these terrible wars with unbelievable power and authority. We will have opportunity, later, to call attention to this in greater detail. The Church became the dominating factor in the history of the world, and it continued as such well into the period of the Reformation. Historically, during this period, the Church developed in external power and glory. It assumed more and more the form of a kingdom of this world.
The doctrine of the “Church” during this second period, 300-750 A.D.
It is at this time that we would present our readers with a sketch of the life of Augustine. It is said that Augustine is the first ecclesiastical author the whole course of whose development can be clearly traced as well as the first in whose case we are able to determine the exact period covered by his career, to this very day. The influence which he has exerted upon the Church, not only in the period, 300-750 A.D., but throughout the new dispensation, is tremendous. And it may be of interest to present to our readers a sketch of the life of this famous Church Father. In presenting this sketch we quote from the History of the Christian Church by Philip Schaff.
It is a venturesome and delicate undertaking to write one’s own life, even though that life be a masterpiece of nature or of the graces of God, and therefore most worthy to be described. Of all autobiographies none has so happily avoided the reef of vanity and self-praise, and none has won so much esteem and love through its honesty and humility as that of St. Augustine.
The “Confessions,” which he wrote in the forty-sixth year of his life, still burning in the ardor of his first love, are full of he tie and unction of the Holy Ghost. They are a sublime effusion, in which Augustine, like David in the fifty-first Psalm, confesses to God, in view of his awn and of succeeding generations, without reserve the sins of his youth; and they are at the same time a hymn of praise to the grace of God, which led him out of darkness into light, and called him to service in the kingdom of Christ. Here we see the great church teacher at all times “prostrate in the dust, conversing with God, basking in His love; his readers hovering before him only as a shadow.” He puts away from himself all honor, all greatness; all beauty, and lays them gratefully at the feet of the all-merciful. The reader feels on every hand that Christianity is no dream nor illusion, but truth and life, and he is carried along in adoration of the wonderful grace of God.
Aurelius Augustine, born on the 13th of November, 354, at Tagaste, an unimportant village of the fertile province Numidia in North Africa, not far from Hippo Regius, inherited from heathen father, Patricius, a passionate sensibility, from his Christian mother, Monica (one of the noblest women in the history of Christianity, of a highly intellectual and spiritual cast, of fervent piety, most tender affection, and all-conquering love), the deep yearning towards God so grandly expressed in his sentence: “Thou hast made us for Thee, and our heart is restless till it rest in Thee” (one may well question this remark of the learned historian that Augustine inherited his yearning towards God from his mother.—H.V.) This yearning, and his reverence for the sweet and holy name of Jesus, though crowded into the background, attended him in his studies at the schools of Madaura and Carthage, on his journeys to Rome and Milan, and on his tedious wanderings through the labyrinth of carnal pleasures, Manicheaean mock-wisdom, Academic skepticism, and Platonic idealism; till at last the prayers of his mother, the sermons of Ambrose, the biography of St. Anthony, and, above all, the Epistle of Paul, as so many instruments in the hand of the Holy Ghost, wrought in the man of three and thirty years thatwonderful change which made him an incalculable blessing to the whole Christian world, and brought even the sins and errors of his youth into the service of the truth.
A son of so many prayers and tears could not be lost, and the faithful mother who travailed with him in spirit with greater pain than her body had in bringing him into the world, was permitted for the encouragement of future mothers, to receive shortly before her death an answer to her prayers and expectations, and was able to leave this world with joy without revisiting her earthly home. For Monica died on a homeward journey, in Ostia at the mouth of the Tiber in her fifty-sixth year in the arms of her son, after enjoying with him a glorious conversation that soared above the confines of space and time, and was a foretaste of the eternal Sabbath rest of the saints. She regretted not to die in a foreign land, because she was not far from God, who would raise her up at the last day. “Bury my body anywhere,” was her last request, “and trouble not yourselves for it; only this one thing I ask, that you remember me at the altar of my God, wherever you may be.” Augustine, in his Confessions, has erected to Monica the noblest monument that can never perish.
If ever there was a thorough and fruitful conversion,, next to that of Paul on the way to Damascus, it was that of Augustine, when, in a garden of the Villa Cassiciacum, not far from Milan, in September of the year 386, amidst the most violent struggles of mind and heart—the birth-throes of the new life—he heard that divine voice of a child: “Take, read!” and he “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 13:14). It is a touching lamentation of his: “I have loved Thee late, Thou Beauty, so old and so new; I have loved Thee late! And lo! Thou was within, but I was without, and was seeking Thee there. And into Thy fair creation I plunged myself in my ugliness; for Thou wast with me, and I was not with Thee! Those things kept me away from Thee, which had not been, except they had, been in Thee! Thou didst call, and didst cry aloud, and break through my deafness. Thou didst glimmer, Thou didst shine, and didst drive away my blindness. Thou didst breathe, and I drew breath, and breathed in Thee. I tasted Thee, and I hunger and thirst. Thou didst touch me, and I burn for Thy peace. If I, with all that is within me, may once live in Thee, then shall pain and trouble forsake me; entirely filled with Thee, all shall be life to me.”
He received baptism from Ambrose in Milan on Easter Sunday, 387, in company with his friend and fellow-convert, Alypius, and his natural son Adeodatus (given by God). It impressed the divine seal upon the inward transformation. He broke radically with the world; abandoned the brilliant and lucrative vocation of a teacher of rhetoric, which he had followed in Rome and Milan; sold his goods for the benefit of the poor: and thenceforth devoted his rare gifts exclusively to the service of Christ, and to that service he continued faithful to his latest breath. After the death of his mother, whom, he revered and loved with the most tender affection, he went a second time to Rome for several months, and wrote books in defense of true Christianity against false philosophy and the Manichaean heresy. Returning to Africa, he spent three years, with his friend Alypius and Evodius, on an estate in his native Tagaste, in contemplative and literary retirement.
Then, in 391, he was chosen presbyter against his will, by the, voice of the people, which, as in the similar cases of Cyprian and Ambrose, proved to be the voice of God, in the Numidian maritime city of Hippo Regius (now Bona); and in 395 he was elected bishop in the same city. For eight and thirty years, until his death, he labored in this place, and made it the intellectual center of Western Christendom.
His outward mode of life was extremely simple, and mildly ascetic. He lived with his clergy in one house in an apostolic community of goods, and made this house a seminary of theology, out of which ten bishops and many lower clergy went forth. Females, even his sister, were excluded from his house, and could see him only in the presence of others. But he founded religious societies of women; and over one of these his sister, a saintly widow, presided. He once said in a sermon, that he had nowhere found better men, and he had nowhere found worse, than in monasteries. Combining, as he did, the clerical life with the monastic, he became unwittingly the founder of the Augustinian order, which gave the reformer, Luther to the world.
The Lord willing, we will continue with this sketch of Augustine’s life the next time.