1902 Encyclopedia > Christianity > Early Progress of Christianity. Causes of Its Progress.

(Part 15)

The Early Progress of Christianity

The history of the world presents no phenomenon so striking as the rise and early progress of Christianity. Originating in a country not remarkable for any political, commercial, or literary influence, emanating from One who occupied a humble sphere in the community amidst which He appeared, and announced in the first instance by men of mean extraction, of no literary culture, and not endowed with any surpassing gifts of intellect, -- it nevertheless spread so rapidly that in an incredibly short period of time it had been diffused throughout the whole civilized world, and in the fourth century of its existence became the recognized and established religion of the Roman empire. When it is remembered that this result was achieved not only without the aid of any worldly influence, but in the face of the keenest opposition on the part of all the learning, wealth, wit, and power of the most enlightened and mightiest nations of the earth, the conclusion is strongly forced upon us that a power beyond that of man was concerned in its success, and that its early and unexampled triumphs afford an incontestable proof of its inherent truth and its divine origin. Nor has the rapid advance of Christianity been confined to its earlier years. "After a revolution of fourteen or fifteen centuries that religion is still professed by the nations of Europe, the most distinguished portion of human kind in art and learning as well as in arms. By the industry and zeal of Europeans, it has been widely diffused to the most distant shores of Asia and Africa, and by means of their colonies has been firmly established from Canada to Chili [Chile] in a land unknown to the ancients." And when we turn to the results of modern missionary enterprise we find a success no less remarkable.

Causes of Its Progress

Historical critics who have no sympathy with the supernatural elements in Christianity have attempted to account for this wonderful success by natural causes, and have pointed out various circumstances which go far to account for the rapidity of its spread. Skeptical critics of a past generation contented themselves with enumerating various distinct causes combining to produce the effect, while naturalist writers of our own day try rather to show that Christianity was the natural outcome of the intellect of the age which produced it. The great disadvantage attaching to the one mode of criticism is that no parade of causes or conditions of success can ever get rid of the supernatural character of Christianity, for it is always impossible to show that these are the only causes at work, and the retort can be made that these cases are themselves part of the supernatural plan for the introduction and furtherance of Christianity, while the other labors under the necessity either of getting rid of the Christ of history and putting in his place an elaborate poem -- an attempt not yet successful -- or of reducing the character and work of Jesus to the level of those of Confucius, Buddha, Mahomet, or other founder of a purely naturalist religion. The celebrated five causes of Gibbon are perhaps the best specimen of the one mode of argument, while the elaborate theories of the Tübingen school are certainly the most noteworthy instance of the other. Gibbon thinks that the Christian faith obtained so remarkable a victory over the established religions of the earth because it was effectually favored and assisted by the five following causes :-- 1. The inflexible, and if we may use the expression, the intolerant zeal of the Christians, derived it is true from the Jewish religion, but purified from the narrow and unsocial spirit, which instead of inviting had deterred the Gentiles from embracing the law of Moses; 2. The doctrine of a future life improved by every additional circumstance which could give weight and efficacy to that important truth; 3. The miraculous powers ascribed to the primitive church; 4. The pure and austere morals of the Christians; 5. The union and discipline of the Christian republic, which gradually formed an independent and increasing state in the heart of the Roman Empire. It does not need the possession of an anti-Christian spirit to admit that these causes of Gibbon's may have helped greatly to spread the Christian religion, and indeed the Christian critic has to object not so much to this statement of causes as to the covert insinuation which lurks in the historian's exposition of their influence. For the question still remains to be put, why was it that Christianity possessed so many characteristics which made it adapted as no other religion was to the needs and capacities of mankind. Still it ought to be observed that when we turn to the pages of the early Christian Apologists, especially to the writings of those of them who were converted to Christianity after having spent many years as intelligent pagans, we find them almost unanimous in declaring that they themselves were attracted to Christianity chiefly by these three reasons : 1. The sublimity and simplicity of the Christian doctrines of God, sin, and salvation; 2. The noble purity of the Christian life, more especially of the life of a Christian woman; and 3. The grandeur of the doctrine of creation contained in the Old Testament Scriptures. The inefficiency of the theories of modern critics who would explain the origin and success of Christianity on purely naturalist grounds has already been discussed under the head of APOLOGETICS.

The strong and deep influence which Christianity soon began to have even over the lives and opinions of those who were not Christians, is even a more striking testimony to its paramount claims than the rapidity of its spread. The struggle of Christianity with Rome has already been alluded to, but even before Rome gave up the struggle in despair, before the last persecution, and before the triumph under Constantine, the influence of Christianity was making itself felt morally, socially, and politically, while its influence on intellect and science was no less remarkable.

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