Oriental Religions and Christianity Part 3

Let us for a moment pause and see of what these treasures of Egypt consisted, and especially what Plato taught concerning God. Like Socrates, he ridiculed the absurd but popular notion that the gods could be full of human imperfections, could make war upon each other, could engage in intrigues, and be guilty of base passions. And he earnestly maintained that it was demoralizing to children and youth to hold up such beings as objects of worship. Such was his condemnation of what he considered false gods. He was equally opposed to the idea that there is no God. "All things," he says, "are from God, and not from some spontaneous and unintelligent cause." "Now, that which is created," he adds, "must of necessity be created by some cause--but how can we find out the Father and maker of all this universe? If the world indeed be fair, and the artificer good, then He must have looked to that which is external--for the world is the fairest of creatures, as He is the best of causes."

Plato's representation of the mercy of God, of his providential care, of his unmixed goodness, of his eternal beauty and holiness--are well-nigh up to the New Testament standard. So is also his doctrine of the immortality of the soul. The fatal deficiency is that he does not _know_. He has received no divine revelation. "We will wait," he said in another passage, "for one, be it a god or a god-inspired man, to teach us our religious duties, and as Athene in Homer says to Diomede, to take away the darkness from our eyes." And in still another place he adds: "We must lay hold of the best human opinion in order that, borne by it as on a raft, we may sail over the dangerous sea of life, unless we can find a stronger boat, _or some word of God which will more surely and safely carry us_."[26]

There is a deep pathos in the question which I have just quoted, "How can we find out the Father and maker of all this universe?" And in the last sentence quoted, Plato seems to have felt his way to the very threshold of the revelation of Christ.[27]

Augustine shows a discrimination on this subject too important to be overlooked, when he declares that while the noble philosophy of the Platonists turned his thoughts away from his low gratifications to the contemplation of an infinite God, it left him helpless. He was profited both by what philosophy taught him and by what it could not teach: it created wants which it could not satisfy. In short, he was prepared by its very deficiencies to see in stronger contrast the all-satisfying fulness of the Gospel of Eternal Life. Plato could tell him nothing of any real plan of redemption, and he confesses with tender pathos that he found no Revealer, no divine sacrifice for sin, no uplifted Cross, no gift of the transforming Spirit, no invitation to the weary, no light of the Resurrection.[28] Now, just here is the exact truth; and Augustine has conferred a lasting benefit upon the Christian Church by this grand lesson of just discrimination. He and other Christian fathers knew where to draw the lines carefully and wisely with respect to heathen errors.

We often have occasion to complain of the sharpness of the controversies of the early Church, but it could scarcely be otherwise in an age like that. It was a period of transitions and of rude convulsions. The foundations of the great deep of human error were being broken up. It was no time for flabby, jelly-fish convictions. The training which the great leaders had received in philosophy and rhetoric had made them keen dialectics. They had something of Paul's abhorrence of heathen abominations, for they saw them on every hand. They saw also the specious admixtures of Gnosticism, and they met them squarely.

Tertullian's controversy with Marcion, Augustine's sharp issue with Pelasgius, Ambrose's bold and uncompromising resistance to Arianism, Origen's able reply to Celsus, all show that the great leaders of the Church were not men of weak opinions. The discriminating concessions which they made, therefore, were not born of an easy-going indifferentism and the soft and nerveless charity that regards all religions alike. They found a medium between this pretentious extreme and the opposite evil of ignorant and narrow prejudgment; and nothing is more needed in the missionary work of our day than that intelligent and well-poised wisdom which considers all the facts and then draws just distinctions; which will not compensate for conscious ignorance with cheap misrepresentation or wholesale denunciation.

1. Now, first of all, in considering the methods of the early Church and its secret of power in overcoming the errors of heathenism, it must be borne in mind that the victory was mainly due to the _moral earnestness_ which characterized that period. In this category we must place the influence which sprang from the martyrdom of thousands who surrendered life rather than relinquish their faith. That this martyr spirit did not always produce a true symmetry of Christian character cannot be denied.

The tide of fanaticism swept in, sometimes, with the current of true religious zeal, and inconsistencies and blemishes marred even the saintliest self-sacrifice; but there was no resisting the mighty logic of the spirit of martyrdom as a whole. The high and the low, the wise and the unlettered, the rich and the poor, the old and the young, strong men and delicate women, surrendered themselves to the most cruel tortures for the love of Christ. This spectacle, while it may have served only to enrage a Nero and urge him on to even more Satanic cruelty, could not be wholly lost upon the more thoughtful Marcus Aurelius and others like him. It was impossible to resist the moral force of so calm and resolute a surrender unto torture and death.

Moreover, an age which produced such relinquishment of earthly possessions as was shown by men like Anthony and Ambrose, who were ready to lay down the emoluments of high political position and distribute their large fortunes for the relief of the poor; and such women as Paula and others of high position, who were ready to sacrifice all for Christ and retire into seclusion and voluntary poverty--an age which could produce such characters and could show their steady perseverance unto the end, could not fail to be an age of resistless moral power; and it would be safe to say that no heathen system could long stand against the sustained and persistent force of such influences. Were the Christian Church of to-day moved by even a tithe of that high self-renunciation, to say nothing of braving the fires of martyrdom, if it possessed in even partial degree the same sacrifice of luxury and ease, and the same consecration of effort and of influence, the conquest of benighted nations would be easy and rapid.

The frugality of the early Christians, the simplicity of life which the great body of the Church observed, and to which even wealthy converts more or less conformed, was also, doubtless, a strong factor in the great problem of winning the heathen to Christ. Probably in no age could Christian simplicity find stronger contrasts than were presented by the luxury and extravagance, the unbridled indulgence and profligacy, which characterized the later periods of the Roman Empire. Universal conquest of surrounding nations had brought untold wealth. The Government had hastened the process of decay by lavish distribution to the people of those resources which obviated the necessity of unremitting toil. It had devoted large expenditures to popular amusements, and demagogues had squandered the public funds for the purpose of securing their own preferment. Over against the moral earnestness of the persecuted Christian Church, there was in the nation itself and the heathenism which belonged to it, an utter want of character or conviction. These conditions of the conquest, as I have already indicated, do not find an exact counterpart with us now. There is more of refined Christian culture than existed in the early Church; probably there is also more of organized Christian effort. In many points the comparison is in our favor, but earnestness, and the spiritual power which attends it, are on a lower grade. There is no escape from the conviction that just here lies the reason why the Christian Church, with all her numbers, her vast material resources, and her unlimited opportunities, cannot achieve a greater success.

2. But, on the intellectual side, and as relating to the methods of direct effort, there are many points in which imitation of the early example is entirely practicable. And first, the wise discrimination which was exercised by Augustine and other Christian leaders is entirely practicable now. There has prevailed in our time an indiscriminate carelessness in the use of terms in dealing with this subject. The strong language which the Old Testament employed against the abominations of Baalism, we have seemed to regard as having equal force against the ethics of Confucius or Gautama. "Heathenism" is the one brand which we have put upon all the non-Christian religions. I wish it were possible to exchange the term for a better.[29] Baalism was undoubtedly the most besotted, cruel, and diabolical religion that has ever existed on the earth. When we carefully study it we are not surprised at the strong language of denunciation which the Old Testament employs. But as I have already shown, we find in the New Testament a different spirit exercised toward the types of error which our Saviour and his disciples were called to meet. There is only gentleness in our Lord's dealings with those who were without the Jewish Church. His strongest denunciations were reserved for hypocrites who knew the truth and obeyed it not. He declared that the men of Nineveh would rise up in judgment against those who rejected the clear message of God's own Son.

The man who goes forth to the great mission fields with the feeling that it is his province to assail as strongly as possible the deeply-rooted convictions of men, instead of winning them to a more excellent way, is worse than one who beats the air; he is doing positive harm; he is trifling with precious souls. He does not illustrate the spirit of Christ.

The wisest of the early Fathers sometimes differed widely from each other in their methods; some were denunciatory, others were even too ready to excuse. The great African controversialist, Tertullian, was unsparing in his anathemas, not only against heathen customs, which were vile indeed, but against the teachings of the noblest philosophy. He had witnessed the former; he had not candidly studied the latter. With a blind zeal, which has too often been witnessed in the history of good causes, he denounced Plato, Aristotle, and even Socrates with a violence which marred the character of so great a man. On the other hand, Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria were perhaps excessively broad. Of two noted Alexandrines, Archdeacon Farrar says: "They were philosophers in spirit; they could enforce respect by their learning and their large, rounded sympathy, where rhetorical denunciation and ecclesiastical anathemas would only have been listened to with a frown of anger, or a look of disdain. Pagan youths would have listened to Clement when he spoke of Plato as 'the truly noble and half-inspired,' while they would have looked on Tertullian as an ignorant railer, who could say nothing better of Socrates than to call him the 'Attic buffoon,' and of Aristotle than to characterize him as the 'miserable Aristotle.'"

Tatian and Hermes also looked upon Greek philosophy as an invention of the devil. Irenaeus was more discriminating. He opposed the broad and lax charity of the Alexandrines, but he read the Greek philosophy, and when called to the bishopric of Lyons, he set himself to the study of the Gallic Druidism, believing that a special adaptation would be called for in that remote mission field.[30] Basil was an earnest advocate of the Greek philosophy as giving a broader character to Christian education.

There were among the Fathers many different types of men, some philosophically inclined, others better able to use practical arguments.

Some were more successful in appealing to the signs of the times, the clear evidences of that corruption and decay to which heathenism had led. They pointed to the degradation of women, the prevalence of vice, the inordinate indulgence in pleasures, the love of excitement, the cruel frenzy of the gladiatorial shows, the unrest and pessimism and despair of all society. One of the most remarkable appeals of this kind is found in a letter of Cyprian to his friend Donatus. "He bids him seat himself in fancy on some mountain top and gaze down upon what he has abandoned (for he is a Christian), on the roads blocked by brigands, the sea beset by pirates, the camps desolated by the horrors of many wars, on the world reeking with bloodshed, and the guilt which, in proportion to its magnitude, was extolled as a glory. Then, if he would turn his gaze to the cities, he would behold a sight more gloomy than all solitudes. In the gladiatorial games men were fattened for mutual slaughter, and publicly murdered to delight the mob. Even innocent men were urged to fight in public with wild beasts, while their mothers and sisters paid large sums to witness the spectacle. In the theatres parricide and infanticide were dealt with before mixed audiences, and all pollution and crimes were made to claim reverence because presented under the guise of religious mythology. In the homes was equal corruption; in the forum bribery and intrigue ran rife; justice was subverted, and innocence was condemned to prison, torture, and death.

Luxury destroyed character, and wealth became an idol and a curse."[31]

Arguments of this kind were ready enough to hand whenever Christian teachers were disposed to use them, and their descriptions found a real corroboration in society as it actually appeared on every hand. None could question the counts in the indictment.

3. While the Christian Fathers and the missionaries differed in their estimates of heathenism, and in their methods of dealing with it, one thing was recognized by all whom we designate as the great leaders, namely, the imperative necessity of a thorough knowledge of it. They understood both the low superstition of the masses and the loftier teaching of the philosophers. On the other hand, they had the same estimate of the incomparable Gospel of Christ that we have; they realized that it was the wisdom of God and the power of God unto salvation as clearly as the best of us, but they did not claim that it was to be preached blindly and without adaptation. The verities of the New Testament teachings, the transforming power of the Holy Ghost, the necessity for a new birth and for the preternatural influence of grace, both in regeneration and in sanctification, were as strongly maintained as they have ever been in any age of the Church; but the Fathers were careful to know whether they were casting the good seed upon stony places, or into good ground where it would spring up and bear fruit. The liberal education of that day was, in fact, an education along the old lines of heathen philosophy, poetry, history, and rhetoric; and a broad training was valued as highly as it has been in any subsequent period.

It was thoroughly understood that disciplined intellect, other things being equal, may expect a degree of influence which can never fall to the lot of ignorance, however sanctified its spirit. There has never been a stronger type of men than the Christian Fathers. They were learned men, for the age in which they lived, and their learning had special adaptations to the work assigned them. Many of them, like Cyprian, Clement, Hilary, Martin of Tours, had been born and educated in heathenism; while others, like Basil, Gregory, Origen, Athanasius, Jerome, and Augustine, though born under Gospel influences, studied heathen philosophy and poetry at the instance of their Christian parents.

4. Some of the leaders familiarized themselves with the speculations of the day, not merely for the sake of a wider range of knowledge, but that they might the more successfully refute the assailants of the faith, many of whom were men of great power. They were fully aware that it behooved them to know their ground, for their opponents studied the points of comparison carefully. The infidel Celsus studied Christianity and its relation to the Old Testament histories and prophecies, and he armed himself with equal assiduity with all the choicest weapons drawn from Greek philosophy. How was such a man to be met? His able attack on Christianity remained fifty years unanswered. To reply adequately was not an easy task. Doubtless there were many, then as now, who thought that the most comfortable way of dealing with such things was to let them alone. But a wiser policy prevailed. Origen was requested to prepare an answer, and, although such work was not congenial to him, he did so because he felt that the cause of the truth demanded it. His reply outlived the attack which it was designed to meet, and in all subsequent ages it has been a bulwark of defence.[32]

Origen was not of a pugnacious spirit--it was well that he was not--but with wide and thorough preparation he summoned all his energies to meet the foe. Archdeacon Farrar says of him, that he had been trained in the whole circle of science. He could argue with the pupils of Plato, or those of Zeno, on equal terms, and he deems it fortunate that one who was called, as he was, to be a teacher at Alexandria, where men of all nations and all creeds met, had a cosmopolitan training and a cosmopolitan spirit.

No less resolute was the effort of Ambrose in resisting the errors of Arianism, and he also adapted himself to the work in hand. He had not been afraid of Platonism. On the other hand, we are told that Plato, next to his Bible, constituted a part of his daily reading, and that, too, in the period of his ripest Christian experience, and when he carried his studies and his prayers far into the hours of the night. But in dealing with Arianism he needed a special understanding of all its intricacies, and when among its advocates and supporters he encountered a powerful empress as well as her ablest advocates, he had need of all the powers within him--that power of moral earnestness which had led him to give all his property to the poor--that power of strong faith, which prepared him, if need be, to lay down his life--the power of a disciplined intellect, and a thorough knowledge of the whole issue.

5. The early Fathers not only studied the heathen philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, but they learned to employ them, and their successors continued to employ them, even to the Middle Ages, and the period of the Reformation. As an intellectual framework, under which truth should be presented in logical order, it became a strong resource of the early Christian teachers. Let me refer you on this point to the clear statements of Professor Shedd.[33] He has well said that "when Christianity was revealed in its last and beautiful form by the incarnation of the Eternal World, it found the human mind already occupied by human philosophy. Educated men were Platonists, or Stoics, or Epicureans. During the age of Apologetics, which extended from the end of the apostolic age to the death of Origen, the Church was called to grapple with these systems, to know as far as possible what they contained, and to discriminately treat their contents, rejecting some things, utilizing others." "We shall see," he continues, "that Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero exerted more influence than all other philosophic minds united upon the greatest of Christian Fathers, upon the greatest of the School men, and upon the greatest of the theologians of the Reformation, Calvin and Melancthon; and if we look at European philosophy, as it has been unfolded in England, Germany, and France, we can perceive that all the modern philosophic schools have discussed the principles of human reason in very much the same manner in which Plato and Aristotle discussed them twenty-two centuries ago."

I need hardly say, in closing, that it is not necessary to borrow from the heathen systems of to-day as extensively as the Fathers did from the systems of Greece and Rome, and it would be discordant with good taste to illustrate our sermons with quotations from the Hindu poets as lavishly as good Jeremy Taylor graced his discourses with gems from the poets of Greece. But I think that we may so far heed the wise examples furnished by Church history as to face the false systems of our time with a candid and discriminating spirit, and by a more adequate knowledge to disenchant the bugbears with which their apologists would alarm the Church.

We are entering upon the broadest and most momentous struggle with heathen error that the world has ever witnessed. Again, in this later age, philosophy and multiform speculation are becoming the handmaids of Hindu pantheism and Buddhist occultism, as well as of Christian truth.

The resources of the East and the West are combined and subsidized by the enemy as well as by the Church. As in old Rome and Alexandria, so now in London and Calcutta all currents of human thought flow together, and truth is in full grapple with error. It is no time to be idle or to take refuge in pious ignorance, much less to fear heathen systems as so many haunted houses which superstitious people dare not enter--as if the Gospel were not as potent a talisman now as it was ages ago. Let us fearlessly enter these abodes of darkness, throw open the shutters, and let in the light of day, and the hobgoblins will flee. Let us explore every dark recess, winnow out the miasma and the mildew with the pure air of heaven, and the Sun of Righteousness shall fill the world.


[Footnote 20: _The Norsemen_, Maclear.]

[Footnote 21: The Druid bard Taliesen says: "Christ, the Word from the beginning, was from the beginning our teacher, and we never lost His teaching. Christianity was a new thing in Asia, but there never was a time when the Druids of Britain held not its doctrines."--_St. Paul in Britain_, p. 86.]

[Footnote 22: Uhlhorn's _Conflict of Christianity with Heathenism_.]

[Footnote 23: The same dualism of the male and the female principle is found in the Shinto of Japan. See Chamberlain's translation of the _Kojiki_.]

[Footnote 24: The late George Eliot has given expression to this grim solace, and Mr. John Fiske, in his _Destiny of Man_, claims that the goal of all life, from the first development of the primordial cell, is the perfected future man.]

[Footnote 25: Voltaire found great delight in the so-called _Ezour Veda_, a work which claimed to be an ancient Veda containing the essential truths of the Bible. The distinguished French infidel was humbled, however, when it turned out that the book was the pious fraud of a Jesuit missionary who has hoped thus to win the Hindus to Christianity.]

[Footnote 26: Quoted by Uhlhorn in _The Conflict of Christianity with Heathenism_, p. 70. He also quotes Seneca as saying: "Oh, if one only might have a guide to truth!"]

[Footnote 27: Plato showed by his writings and his whole life that he was a true seeker after the knowledge of God, whom he identified with the highest good. Though he believed in an efficient creatorship, he held that matter is eternal. Ideas are also eternal, but the world is generated. He was not a Pantheist, as he clearly placed God outside of, or above, the universe. He regarded the soul of man as possessed of reason, moral sensibility, and appetite.

On the doctrine of future immortality Plato was most emphatic.

He also believed that the soul in a previous state had been pure and sinless, but had fallen. He taught that recovery from this fallen condition is to be accomplished by the pursuit of philosophy and the practice of virtue (not as merit but as discipline), by contemplating the highest ideal which is the character of God, and by thinking of eternity. Plato regarded suffering as disciplinary when properly improved. True philosophy may raise the soul above the fear of death.

This was proved by Socrates. Both Socrates and Plato seemed to believe in a good demon (spirit) whose voice was a salutary and beneficent guide. As to eschatology, Plato looked forward to a heaven where the virtuous soul shall dwell in the presence of God, and in the enjoyment of pure delights.

Aristotle's idea of God was scarcely less exalted than that of Plato. He expressed it thus: "The principle of life is in God; for energy of mind constitutes life, and God is this energy. He, the first mover, imparts motion and pursues the work of creation as something that is loved. His course of life must be similar to what is most excellent in our own short career. But he exists forever in this excellence, whereas this is impossible for us. His pleasure consists in the exercise of his essential energy, and on this account vigilance, wakefulness, and perception are most agreeable to him. Again, the more we examine God's nature the more wonderful does it appear to us. He is an eternal and most excellent being. He is indivisible, devoid of parts, and having no magnitude, for God imparts motion through infinite time, and nothing finite, as magnitude is, can have an infinite capacity. He is a being devoid of passions and unalterable."--Quoted in _Indian Wisdom_, p.


[Footnote 28: "Those pages present not the image of this piety, the tears of confession, Thy sacrifice, a troubled spirit, a broken and a contrite heart, the salvation of the people, the Bridal city, the earnest of the Holy Ghost, the cup of our redemption. No man sings there, 'Shall not my soul be submitted unto God? for of Him cometh my salvation, for He is my God and my salvation, my guardian, I shall no more be grieved.' No one there hears Him call 'Come unto me all ye that labor.'"--_Confessions_, Bk. vii., xxi. "But having then read those books of the Platonists, and thence being taught to search for incorporeal truth, I saw Thy invisible things, understood by the things which are made; and though cast back, I perceived what that was which, through the darkness of my mind, I was hindered from contemplating, being assured 'that Thou wert and wert infinite, and yet not diffused in space, finite or infinite, and that Thou truly art who art the same ever, in no part nor motion varying; and that all other things are from Thee.... Of these things I was assured, yet too insecure to enjoy Thee.

I prated as one skilled, but I had not sought Thy way in Christ our Saviour; I had proved to be not skilled but killed."--_Confessions_, Bk.

vii., xx.]

[Footnote 29: We may judge of the bearing of the common term heathen as applied to non-Christian nations, when we consider that the Greeks and Romans characterized all foreigners as "barbarians," that Mohammedans call all Christians "infidels," and the Chinese greet them as "foreign devils." The missionary enterprise as a work of conciliation should illustrate a broader spirit.]

[Footnote 30: _The Celts_, Maclear.]

[Footnote 31: _Lives of the Fathers_, Farrar.]

[Footnote 32: "Christianity," says Max Muller, "enjoyed no privileges and claimed no immunities when it boldly confronted and confounded the most ancient and the most powerful religions of the world. Even at present it craves no mercy and it receives no mercy from those whom our missionaries have to meet face to face in every part of the world; and unless our religion has ceased to be what it was, its defenders should not shrink from this new trial of its strength, but should encourage rather than depreciate the study of comparative theology."--_Science of Religion_, p. 22.]

[Footnote 33: _History of Christian Theology_, Vol. I., p. 52.]



The religious systems of India, like its flora, display luxuriant variety and confusion. Hinduism is only another banyan-tree whose branches have become trunks, and whose trunks have produced new branches, until the whole has become an intellectual and moral jungle of vast extent. The original stock was a monotheistic nature worship, which the Hindu ancestors held in common with other branches of the Aryan family when dwelling together on the high table-lands of Central Asia, or, as some are now claiming, in Eastern Russia. Wherever may have been that historic "cradle" in which the infancy of our race was passed, it seems certain from similarities of language, that this Aryan family once dwelt together, and had a common worship, and called the supreme deity by a common name. It was a worship of the sky, and at length of various powers of nature, _Surya_, the sun: _Agni_, fire: _Indra_, rain, etc. It is maintained by many authors, in India as well as in Europe, that these designations were only applied as names of one and the same potential deity. This is the ground held by the various branches of the modern Somaj of India. Yet we must not suppose that the monotheism of the early Aryans was all that we understand by that term; it is enough that the power addressed was _one_ and personal. Even henotheism, the last name which Professor Max Muller applies to the early Aryan faith, denotes oneness in this sense. The process of differentiation and corruption advanced more rapidly among the Indo-Aryans than in the Iranian branch of the same race, and in all lands changes were wrought to some extent by differences of climate and by environment.[34] The Norsemen, for example, struggling with the wilder and sterner forces of storm and wintry tempest, would naturally differ in custom, and finally in faith, from the gentle Hindu under his Indian sky; yet there were common elements traceable in the earliest traditions of these races, and the fact that religions are not wholly dependent upon local conditions is shown by both Christianity and Buddhism, which have flourished most conspicuously and permanently in lands where they were not indigenous.

"In the Vedas," says Sir Monier Williams, "unity in the conception of deity soon diverged into various ramifications. Only a few of the hymns appear to contain the simple conception of one divine, self-existent, omnipresent Being, and even in these, the idea of one God, present in all nature, is somewhat nebulous and undefined." One of the earliest deifications that we can trace was that of _Varuna_, who represented the overhanging sky. The hymns addressed to Varuna are not only the earliest, but they are the loftiest and most spiritual in their aspirations. They find in him an element of holiness before which sin is an offence; and in some vague sense he is the father of all things, like the Zeus whom Paul recognized in the poetry of Greece.

But, as already stated, this vague conception of God as one, was already in a transition toward separate impressions of the different powers of nature. If the idea of God was without any very clear personality and more or less obscure, it is not strange that it should come to be thus specialized as men thought of objects having a manifestly benign influence--as the life-quickening sun or the reviving rain. It is not strange that, without a knowledge of the true God, they should have been filled with awe when gazing upon the dark vault of night, and should have rendered adoration to the moon and her countless retinue of stars.

If there must be idolatry, let it be that sublime nature worship of the early Aryans, though even that was sure to degenerate into baser forms.

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