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HOME > Religious Fiction > Paganism Surviving in Christianity > CHAPTER IX. STATE RELIGION A PAGAN INSTITUTION.
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Christ’s Attitude toward the State—The Roman Conception of Religion as a Department of the State—Roman Civil Law Created and Regulated All Religious Duties—Effect of the Pagan Doctrine of Religious Syncretism on Christianity—The Emperor a Demi-God, Entitled to Worship, and, ex officio, the Supreme Authority in Religion—The Deep Corruption of Roman Morals and Social Life under Pagan State Religion.

Three fundamental points at which Christianity was corrupted by heathenism have been examined. It remains to consider another which was not less fundamental, and has not been less persistent—viz., the union of Christianity with the State.
Christ’s Attitude Toward the State.

Christ taught the infinite worth of man as an individual. The divine priesthood of every believer in Christ, and his absolute spiritual kingship over himself, under God, is a fundamental doctrine of the Gospel. On such a platform, Christ proclaimed the absolute separation of Church and State. “My kingdom is not of this world” was the keynote in His proclamation. His kingdom[189] knew neither Jew nor Greek, Roman nor Egyptian, bondman nor freeman. Ethnic distinctions and lines of caste were unknown to the world’s Redeemer. Wherever a heart bowed in simple faith and loyal obedience, there Christ’s kingdom was set up. Placed alongside the state-church theory of Rome, the doctrine of Christ’s kingdom was noonday by the side of midnight. It was a diamond among pebbles. It was the proclamation of a brotherhood all-embracing and eternal. This kingdom rendered unto C?sar the little that was due him, and demanded the fullest and highest allegiance to the invisible but not unknown God. It sought only simple protection from the civil power, and patiently suffered wrong, even unto death, when this was denied. Such a kingdom found its first adherents among those who were least entangled in the meshes of the state religions, and whose hearts opened most loyal to the one God, and His Son, the Christ. These were naturally the common people, who heard gladly, and entered joyfully into the heavenly citizenship. Thus the Church of Christ, like Himself, was born among the lowly, and wholly independent of the state. Such a spiritual kingdom could not be brought under the control of the civil power, and that a pagan power, without being corrupted, if not destroyed.

Roman Conception of Religion.

The reader will be better prepared to understand how Christianity became corrupted along this line, by considering the genius of the Roman nation, and its conception of religion. The idea of law as the embodiment of absolute power pervaded the Roman mind. Men were important only as citizens. Separate from the state, man was nothing. “To be a Roman, was greater than a king.” Every personal right, every interest was subservient to the state. This conception of power was the source of Roman greatness, prowess, and success. It conscripted the legions, conquered the world, and made all roads lead to Rome. Previous to Christianity, all religion was ethnic. To the Roman, religion was a part of the civil code. It was a system of contracts between men and the gods, through the civil law. The head of the State was, ex officio, the head of the Department of Religion. There was no place in heathen theories for the Gospel idea of the Church.

Speaking on this point, Dr. Schaff says:

“Of a separation of religion and politics, of the spiritual power from the temporal, heathen antiquity knew nothing, because it regarded religion itself only from a natural point of view, and subjected it to the purposes of the all-ruling state, the highest known form of human society.[191] The Egyptian kings, as Plutarch tells us, were at the same time priests, or were received into the priesthood at their election. In Greece the civil magistrate had supervision of the priests and sanctuaries. In Rome, after the time of Numa, this supervision was intrusted to a senator, and afterward united with the imperial office. All the pagan emperors, from Augustus to Julian the Apostate, were at the same time supreme pontiffs (Pontifices Maximi), the heads of the state religion, emperor-popes. As such they could not only perform all priestly functions, even to offering sacrifices, when superstition or policy prompted them to do so, but they also stood at the head of the highest sacerdotal college (of fifteen or more Pontifices), which in turn regulated and superintended the three lower classes of priests (the Epulones, Quindecemviri, and Augures), the temples and altars, the sacrifices, divinations, feasts and ceremonies, the exposition of the Sibylline books, the calendar, in short, all public worship, and in part even the affairs of marriage and inheritance.”[175]

That Christianity must needs become paganized if it became a religion of the state, is shown further by the following, from an editor of Justinian’s Institutes:

“What was most peculiar in the religion of Rome was its intimate connection with the civil polity. The heads of religion were not a priestly caste, but were citizens, in all other respects like their fellows, except that they were invested with peculiar sacred offices. The king was at[192] the head of the religious body, and beneath him were augurs and other functionaries of the ceremonies of religion. The whole body of the populus had a place in the religious system of the state. The mere fact of birth in one of the famili? forming part of a gens gave admittance to a sacred circle which was closed to all besides. Those in this circle were surrounded by religious ceremonies from their cradle to their grave. Every important act of their life was sanctioned by solemn rites. Every division and subdivision of the state to which they belonged had its own peculiar ceremonies. The individual, the family, the gens, were all under the guardianship of their respective tutelar deities. Every locality with which they were familiar was sacred to some patron god. The calendar was marked out by the services of religion. The pleasure of the gods arranged the times of business and leisure; and a constantly superintending Providence watched over the councils of the state, and showed, by signs which the wise could understand, approval or displeasure of all that was undertaken.”[176]

The fundamental difference between New Testament Christianity and the Roman idea of religion is further shown by the following from Reville and Tiele:

Reville says:

“In Rome religious tradition was an affair of the state, like the priesthood itself. The senate was by right its guardian. That body legislated for religion as for everything[193] else; and when the Greco-Roman paganism persecuted, it did so from essentially political motives.”[177]

Tiele says:

“Much greater weight was attached by the practical Roman to the cultus than to the doctrines of religion. This was the one point of supreme importance; in his view the truly devout man was he who punctually performed his religious obligations, who was pious according to law. There was a debt to be paid to the gods, which must be discharged, but it was settled if the letter of the contract was fulfilled, and the symbol was given in place of the reality. The animistic conception that the gods might be employed as instruments for securing practical advantages, lies at the basis of the whole Roman cultus. In the earliest times, therefore, it was quite simple, so far as regards the absence of images or temples, but it was at the same time exceedingly complicated and burdened with all kinds of ceremonies and symbolic actions, and the least neglect destroyed the efficacy of the sacrifice. This necessitated the assistance of priests acquainted with the whole ritual, not to serve as mediators, for the approach to the deity was open to all, but to see that pious action failed in no essential element.... Everything was regulated with precision by the government, and the fact that the highest of the priests was always under the control of the state, prevented the rise of a priestly supremacy, the absence of which in Greece was due to other causes; but the consequence was that the Roman religion remained dry and formal and was external rather than[194] inward. Even the purity (castitas) on which great stress was laid, was only sacerdotal, and was attained by lustration, sprinkling, and fumigation, and the great value attached to prayer, so that a single error had to be atoned for as a neglect, had its basis in the superstitious belief that it possessed a high magic power.”[178]
Religious Syncretism.

The prevailing tendency to religious syncretism in the Roman empire paved the way for corrupting Christianity by union with the State.

The doctrine of courtesy in religious matters had risen in the Roman mind, to a theory of religious syncretism, which offered recognition to other religions outside the Roman. The religions of the Orient and of Egypt already had a place and protection at Rome. These, like the citizens of the lands whence they came, were taken in charge by the laws of the Mistress of the World. By the opening of the fourth century, Christianity had gained such influence and standing that, although it had no claims as an ethnic religion, it was too promising a waif to be longer unnoticed. The great empire was conscious of present decline and coming decay. New blood was an imperative necessity; perhaps this new religion, that had given[195] such power of endurance to its votaries, would furnish the needful help.

This recognition, at first, was not in any true sense toleration, nor a full recognition of the freedom of conscience. It was rather such recognition as the foreman gives to the apprentice: “Come in and show what you can do.” In this recognition Rome adopted no new policy, neither gave evidence of any genuine faith in Apostolic Christianity. As late as 321 A.D., not more than one-twentieth part of the people were C............
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