September 1, 1892
NOW let us take our bearings again, that we may fairly enter upon the examination of another point. Out of that first falling away came the mystery of iniquity. And as that mystery of iniquity was the Papacy, and is the Papacy, it is important for us to know how that thing came in, just what place it occupied there, when it appeared, and how it appeared. As the apostle says, there was a falling away. Self-exaltation of the bishopric and all kinds of different amusements and ceremonies were adopted, also the taking up with the heathen philosophy and science, in order to facilitate the conversion of the heathen. These men had forsaken the mystery of God, had left the power of God behind; and when they found that they had lost the power of God, and could not influence men any longer to yield obedience to God, then they sought the power of earthly governments, by which they would compel men to yield obedience to the church.
In Constantine’s time there was the working of this power; this apostate church, this formation of the mystery of iniquity, doing its utmost to secure control of the civil power and compel men to conform to the dogmas and the discipline of this apostate form of religion, which called itself Christianity. Now I want to call your attention to a few facts in connection with that. For just then there came in a series of events, a series of steps, that are worth considering now by every one who would know how to detect the rise of the image of the mystery of iniquity.
In the beginning of the fourth century there was in the Roman empire a powerful ecclesiastical organization, the leaders and managers of which were “only anxious to assert the government as a kind of sovereignty for themselves.”—Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History, book 8, chap. 1. While “it was the hope of every bishop in the empire to make politics a branch of theology,” “it was the aim of Constantine to make theology a branch of politics.” In an intrigue therefore with Constantine, they succeeded in bartering to him their influence and power in theology for his in politics. As one of the very first-fruits of this, Constantine was established in the rulership of one half of the Roman empire. Jointly with Licinius, he then issued the Edict of Milan, reversing the persecuting edicts of Diocletian, and granting “liberty and full freedom to the Christians to observe their own mode of worship;” granting “likewise to the Christians and to all, the free choice to follow that mode of worship which they may wish;” “that each may have the privilege to select and to worship whatsoever divinity he pleases;” and commanding that the churches and the church property which had been confiscated by Diocletian, should be restored to “the whole body of Christians,” “and to each conventicler respectively.”—Id., book 10, chap. 5.
This was all just and proper enough, and innocent enough, in itself and on its face, if that had been all there was to it. But behind it there lay the ecclesiastical organization, ambitious to assert the government as a kind of sovereignty for itself, and that religio-political intrigue which had been entered into to feed and satisfy this ambition. This ecclesiastical organization likewise claimed to be the legitimate and only true representative and depository of Christianity in the world,—it was the Catholic Church. And no sooner had the Edict of Milan ordered the restoration of property to the Christians, than it was seized upon and made an issue by which to secure the imperial recognition and the legal establishment of the Catholic Church.
The rule had long before been established that all who did not agree with the bishops of the Catholic Church were necessarily heretics, and not Christians at all; it was now claimed by the Catholic Church that therefore none such were entitled to any benefit from the edict restoring property to the Christians. In other words, the Catholic Church disputed the right of any others than Catholics to receive property or money under the Edict of Milan, by disputing their right to the title of Christians. And by this issue the Catholic Church forced an imperial decision as to who were Christians. And under the circumstances, by the power and influence which she held, and by what she had already done in behalf of Constantine, it was a foregone conclusion, if not the concerted plan, that this decision would be in favor of the Catholic Church. Consequently, Constantine’s edict to the proconsul contained these words:—
“It is our will that when thou shalt receive this epistle, if any of those things belonging to the Catholic Church of the Christians in the several cities or other places, are now possessed either by the decurions or any others, these thou shalt cause immediately to be restored to their churches. Since we have previously determined, that whatsoever these same churches before possessed should be restored to them.”
That was not what was said at all. It was not “the Catholic Church” to which the edict said the property was to be restored; it was to Christians alone, to “the whole body of Christians.” But, mark you, just as quick as that was said, the Catholic Church made a turn upon that word “Christian,” and forced a decision by the imperial authority as to who were the Christians intended. And as she had given him her influence in politics, he did not dare to say otherwise; because if he should, she would swing her influence over to Licinius or some other one, and he would become emperor. She had political power in her hands, and she used it.
Nor was it enough that the emperor should decide that all these favors were for “the Catholic Church of the Christians.” Immediately there were two parties claiming to be the Catholic Church. Therefore, the emperor was obliged next to decide which was the Catholic Church. This question was immediately raised and disputed, and in consequence an edict was drawn from Constantine, addressed to the same proconsul (of the province of Africa), in which were these words:—
“It is my will that these men, within the province intrusted to those in the Catholic Church over which Cecilianus presides, who give their services to this holy religion, and whom they commonly call clergy, shall be held totally free and exempt from all public offices,” etc.
The party over which Cecilianus presided in Africa was the party which was in communion with the bishop of Rome. The other party then drew up a long series of charges against Cecilianus, and sent them to the emperor with a petition that he would have the case examined by the bishops of Gaul. Constantine was in Gaul at the time; but instead of having the bishops of Gaul examine into the case alone, he commissioned three of them to go to Rome and sit with the bishop of Rome in council, to decide the case. To the bishop of Rome Constantine sent a letter, with copies of all the charges and complaints which had been lodged with him, and in this letter to the bishop of Rome, with other things, he said this:—
“Since it neither escaped your diligence, that I show such regard for the holy Catholic Church, that I wish you, upon the whole, to leave no room for schism or division.”
This council of course confirmed the emperor’s word that the Catholic Church in Africa, was indeed the one over which Cecilianus presided. And as this was the one which was in communion with the bishop of Rome, it followed that the Catholic Church was the one over which the bishops of Rome presided. The other party appealed from this decision, and petitioned that another and larger council be called to examine the question. Another council was called, composed of almost all the bishops of Constantine’s dominions. This council likewise confirmed the emperor’s word and the decision of the former council. Then the opposing party appealed from the decision of the council to the emperor himself. After hearing this appeal, he sustained the action of the councils, and re-affirmed his original decision. Then the opposing party rejected not only the decisions of the councils, but the decision of the emperor himself.
Then Constantine addressed a letter to Cecilianus, bestowing more favors upon what he now called “the legitimate and most holy Catholic religion,” and empowering him to use the civil power to compel the opposing party, the Donatists, to submit. This portion of his letter is in the following words:—
“CONSTANTINE AUGUST TO CECILIANUS, BISHOP OF CARTHAGE: As we have determined that in all the provinces of Africa, Numblia, and Mauritania, something should be granted to certain ministers of the legitimate and most holy Catholic religion to defray these expenses, I have given letters to Ursus, the most illustrious lieutenant-governor of Africa, and have communicated to him, that he shall provide to pay to your authority, three thousand dollars [about one hundred thousand dollars] ….
“And as I have ascertained that some men, who are of no settled min, wished to diver the people from the most Holy Catholic Church, by a certain pernicious adulteration, I wish thee to understand that I have given, both to the proconsul Anulinus and to Patricius, vicar-general of the prefects, when present the following injunctions: that, among all the rest, they should particularly pay the necessary attention to this, nor should by any means tolerate that this should be overlooked. Wherefore, if thou seest any of these men persevering in this madness, thou shalt, without any hesitancy, proceed to the aforesaid judges, and report  it to them, that they may animadvert upon them, as I commanded them, when present.”
Thus, no sooner was it decided what was “the legitimate and most holy Catholic Church,” than the civil power was definitely placed at the disposal of this church, with positive instructions to use this power in compelling conformity to the new imperial religion. Persecution was begun at once. The Donatist bishops were driven out, and Constantine commanded that their churches should be delivered to the Catholic party. Nor was this done at all peacefully. “Each party recriminated on the other: but neither denies the barbarous scenes of massacre and license which devastated the African cities. The Donatists boasted of their martyrs; and the cruelties of the Catholic party rest on their own admission; they deny not, they proudly vindicate, their barbarities: ‘Is the vengeance of God to be defrauded of its victims?’ they cried.”—Milman, “History of Christianity,” book 3, chap. 1, par. 5 from the end.
And the government, by becoming a partisan, had lost the power to keep the peace. The civil power, by becoming a party to religious controversy, had lost the power to prevent civil violence between religious factions. The civil government was subordinated to the church, and was only a tool of the church.
Nor was this thing long in coming. It all occurred in less than four years. The Edict of Milan was issued in the month of March, A.D. 313. Before that month expired, the decision was rendered that the imperial favors were for the Catholic Church. In the summer of 314 sat the second council on the same question. And in 316 the decree was sent to Cecilianus, empowering him to distribute the money to the ministers of “the legitimate and most holy Catholic religion,” and to use the civil power to force the Donatists to submit to the decision of the councils and the emperor.
(Continued next week.)