Rethinking the Great Apostasy: The victory of Christianity over Roman Paganism

What Happened: 

In 1776, Edward Gibbon described a fascinating sequence of events he calls the “ruin of Paganism” during the reign of Theodosius in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. (Gibbon’s patrician, Enlightenment, classically conservative,  modern, and rationalist biases are in full effect — but it’s a brilliant read.)

Gibbon wrote: “The ruin of the Pagan religion is described by the sophists as a dreadful and amazing prodigy, which covered the earth with darkness, and restored the ancient dominion of chaos and of night. . . a revolution, which raised those obscure victims of the laws of Rome to the rank of celestial and invisible protectors of the Roman empire.” He cites it as,”perhaps the only example of the total extirpation of any ancient and popular superstition; and may therefore deserve to be considered as a singular event in the history of the human mind.”

The third to wear the purple robes after Constantine declared himself a Christian was Constantine’s nephew, the last pagan emperor, Julian.  Orphaned as a child, he raised as a Christian with his half-brother, consul of the east, Gallus.  When he reached twenty, Julian rejected Christianity in a secret initiation into the Greek mysteries of Eleusis. He adopted neoplatonic philosophy, and worshiped the Greek pantheon. He hid his pagan devotion and feigned Christian worship for ten years, until he finally declared his paganism while waging a civil war against the Christian prince Constantinius. His victory revitalized paganism as well as religious toleration across the empire.

Gibbon described how the roots of his apostasy sprang from his experience with sectarian in-fighting among his fellow christian students:”He was educated in the Lesser Asia amidst the scandals of the Arian controversy. The fierce contests of the Eastern bishops, the incessant alterations of the creeds, and the profane motives which appeared to actuate their conduct, insensibly strengthened the prejudice of Julian that they neither understood nor believed the religion for which they so fiercely contended. Instead of listening to the proofs of Christianity with that favourable attention which adds weight to the most respectable evidence, he heard with suspicion, and disputed with obstinacy and acuteness, the doctrines which he already entertained an invincible aversion.”

He was a visionary religionist as much as he was a student of philosophy: “In the caverns of Ephesus and Eleusis, the mind of Julian was penetrated with sincere, deep, and unalterable enthusiasm; though he might sometimes exhibit the vicissitudes of pious fraud and hypocrisy, which may be observed, or at least suspected, in the characters of the most conscientious fanatics. . .  [It was reported that Julian] lived in a perpetual intercourse with the gods and goddesses; that they descended upon earth to enjoy the conversation of their favorite hero; that they gently interrupted his slumbers by touching his hand or his hair; that they warned him of every impending danger, and conducted him, by their infallible wisdom, in every action of his life; and that he had acquired such an intimate knowledge of his heavenly guests, as readily to distinguish the voice of Jupiter from that of Minerva, and the form of Apollo from the figure of Hercules.”

As emperor, he acted as supreme pontiff of his new faith, and reformed pagan practice to comply with his understanding of temperance and character.   With his public policy, he sought to revive and strengthen Hellenistic worship as well as reverence for Hellenistic philosophy among the Romans. He championed religious freedom as well as the cause of paganism against the rising tide of Christian hegemony.  He aspired to be a Platonic philosopher-king and rebuilt the pagan shrines across the empire, welcomed pagan exiles home, and even attempted to rebuild the temple at Jerusalem to maintain the vibrant diversity of faith in the face of the force of the Christian Gospel and its fanatical adherents.

Julian’s reign might be considered the the last full gasp of public paganism — within 30 years of his death, the emperor Theodosius choked it unconscious.  This last emperor to rule both the eastern and western empires, with finality, established Nicene Christianity as orthodoxy across all of western civilization. As such, he is perhaps the most important figure in Christian political history.

Julian’s gains for paganism were only cautiously rolled back by the two emperors that followed him. At the dawn of Theodosius’ reign, “four hundred and twenty-four temples, or chapels, still remained to satisfy the devotion of the people; and in every quarter of Rome the delicacy of the Christians was offended by the fumes of idolatrous sacrifice.”  But within thirty years of Theodisius’ rule, there was little trace of paganism in the public life of the empire.

By modern standards, Theodisius used ham-fisted tactics to secure dominance of his faith. Gibbon describes how he dismantled paganism, “by some acts which might perhaps secure the protection of Heaven, but which must seem rash and unseasonable in the eye of human prudence.” He banned public practice of pagan ritual and sacrifice, watched as the Temple of the Delphi and hundreds of other ancient temples and works of art were destroyed, and ended the Olympic Games.  Much of the fanaticism and destruction took place under the hands of teams of monks which were bitterly mocked by the pagan observers who Gibbon was happy to quote.

Conspicuously, Theodosius himself did not ban adherence to paganism, only its public practice. Gibbon explains: “Theodosius might undoubtedly have proposed to his Pagan subjects the alternative of baptism or of death” but “never enacted, by any positive law, that all his subjects should immediately embrace and practice the religion of their sovereign . . .nor were any peculiar hardships imposed on the [pagans], who credulously received the fables of Ovid, and obstinately rejected the miracles of the Gospel . . The Pagans were indulged in the most licentious freedom of speech and writing. . .we must applaud the good sense of the Christian princes, who viewed, with a smile of contempt, the last struggles of superstition and despair. But the Imperial laws, which prohibited the sacrifices and ceremonies of Paganism, were rigidly executed; and every hour contributed to destroy the influence of a religion, which was supported by custom, rather than by argument.”

According to Gibbon, the gains of reason were quickly undone by a fanatic pursuit of relics by the more demotic of the clergy – “a superstitious practice, which tended to increase the temptations of fraud, and credulity, insensibly extinguished the light of history, and of reason, in the Christian world.”

“Without much regard for truth or probability,” the Christian clergy “invented names for skeletons, and actions for names. The fame of the apostles, and of the holy men who had imitated their virtues, was darkened by religious fiction. To the invincible band of genuine and primitive martyrs, they added myriads of imaginary heroes, who had never existed, except in the fancy of crafty or credulous legendaries”

The belief in the powers of the saints, real or imaginary, was supported by a healthy dose of visions and miracles: “The innumerable miracles, of which the tombs of the martyrs were the perpetual theatre, revealed to the pious believer the actual state and constitution of the invisible world; and his religious speculations appeared to be founded on the firm basis of fact and experience. . . The imagination, which had been raised by a painful effort to the contemplation and worship of the Universal Cause, eagerly embraced such inferior objects of adoration as were more proportioned to its gross conceptions and imperfect faculties. The sublime and simple theology of the primitive Christians was gradually corrupted; and the Monarchy of heaven, already clouded by metaphysical subtleties, was degraded by the introduction of a popular mythology, which tended to restore the reign of polytheism.”

My take: 

To someone steeped in the Mormon view of history, Gibbon’s story shows the contours of what Mormons term the “Great Apostasy” of the Christian church.  But regardless of one’s position on the significance of these events, the fall of paganism and general freedom of religion briefly experienced between Constantine and Theodosius, and final supremacy of Nicene Christianity shows the fascinating interplay between religious currents of humanity.

Having investigated the reasoning supporting Nicene Christianity for the past few years, Gibbon’s description of “the last struggles of superstition and despair” is actually quite poignant to me now. The clarity of the Trinitarian message, carved out from the chaos psuedo-pagan saint and relic worship by the Reformers is compelling.  Those, like Theodosius, who are convinced by the arguments that underpin this message seemed somewhat justified in their fanaticism.  There is no joy in the despair and confusion of most religion, pagan or otherwise, regardless of the seeming effectiveness of the prayers and practices of the adherents.  Superstition mocks the sound reasoning that most now associate with God.  But with the victories of Theodosius, Christianity took on a different hue. During the persecution of the Christians, they were distinguished by their separation from Rome, rather than their identification with it. After the persecutions, the liberated Christians adopted the practices and intolerance of their predecessors.

Mormonism roughly emulates Julianite paganism that championed religious liberty just after Christianity took hold. Mormonism fits Gibbons description of Julian’s religion: “Instead of an indivisible and regular system, which occupies the whole extent of the believing mind, the mythology of the Greeks was composed of a thousand loose and flexible parts, and the servant of the gods was at liberty to define the degree and measure of his religious faith.” Much the same can be said of the Mormons.

Like Julian, Joseph fancied himself a theosophist of sorts who wished to restore a faith lost to the world.  They both maintained a visionary and magical view of the world. Jospeh’s apostasy from the Nicene faith was as deep as Julian’s, and the beliefs of both were forged in the midst of sectarian in-fighting and theological dispute.  Julian’s  preaching against the Nicene Christians mirrors Joseph Smith’s rough stand against their creeds and arguments.

It also certainly fitting that Mormons should consider Theodosius the man who finally solidified the Great Apostasy. It seems that Mormonism suffers from similar weaknesses of the paganism erased by Theodosius.  It is likely that if an anti-Mormon dictator such as Theodosius came to world power he could extinguish Mormonism with the same tactics used to dismantle paganism – not by banning its theology or adherence, but by abolishing its temples and meeting houses.  As anyone who has lived the religion can attest, it is primarily a collection of covenants, practices, and ordinances. In many ways it is a religion “supported by custom, rather than argument.”

Of course this is not really a hard knock against the faith. The reality is that Mormonism generated a new Christian tribe, infused with its own special practices and covenants.  It was and is a refreshing alternative to the arguments that had grown cold in the practices of most of the followers of Christianity. The legacy of Theodosius remains more powerful than the legacy of the reason of the Reformers. Christianity, by and large, became a religion manipulated for political purposes to justify the actions of barbarous leaders and absolve citizens of barbarity. It adopted all of the trappings of state-supporting paganism, embracing wholesale, all sort of magic, reason, and unreason.

Sitting here today, as argument, Nicene Christianity appears superior to Mormonism’s murky and unformed conceptions of God, but as psychology, the power of Mormonism (as well as paganism) is undeniable.  These sorts of religions, like those of the earliest Christians were founded by those who trusted in clan and family more than nation, and God more than both.  To the outsider, Mormonism is no different in character than Julian’s paganism, and very similar to the authors and followers of the fantastic cults of saints and relics, made up whole cloth by charlatan clergy that thrived after Theodosius.  To the insider, it is a return to the pragmatic roots of natural religion abandoned in the face of fancy reasoning.

Evangelicalism, despite being thoroughly Nicene in their belief system, would also seem to have ideological roots reaching back to Julian rather than Theodosius.  They identify with a faith that is both practically and theologically reasonable. While not denying the power of Christian “magic” they eschew all other kinds while admitting their allure. Evangelical’s hold that a belief that is also a devotion, expressed in practice as well as creeds. Like Julian, they embrace religious freedom and believe in a de-politicized religion, which seeks to hold on to the ancient faith of the past while looking to the future.

In the end, Evangelicals and Mormons would probably agree that the Julian model of government is more conducive to true religion than that of Theodosius and his successors. By finally merging Christianity with Rome, Theodosius seems to have planted the tares that eventually choked the fruit of Christianity, and paved the way for what future observers termed “the death of God.”

4 thoughts on “Rethinking the Great Apostasy: The victory of Christianity over Roman Paganism

  1. Gibbon’s view of events does mirror the Mormon view – if you are talking about Talmage’s view. Talmage lifted entire passages from Gibbon in his book “The Great Apostasy.” And since Talmage was highly influential on Mormon thought through the mid to late 20th century, the Mormon view often parroted Gibbon in his contempt for Catholicism and desire for a narrative demonstrating the loss of some mythological golden age of reason.

    But both men’s work is hopelessly outdated. Gibbon was a great writer, but his overarching thesis of the loss of pagan reason at the hands of Catholicism resulting in some “Dark Age” has been largely discredited.

    The Pagan Romans were not even remotely fluffy bunnies, Pagan philosophy, including Aristotle and company was already hopelessly stagnant and ready to be surpassed by the time of the ascendency of Christianity, and the Roman Catholic Church – far from suppressing Greek reason, taught it in their academies and pioneered new conclusions from it.

    And the Dark Ages was nothing of the sort. In effect – there was no “Dark Ages.” What it’s become fashionable for Protestant scholars trashing on Catholicism and their atheist replacements to call the “Dark Ages” was actually a period of technological advance, agricultural progress, relative peace, and pioneering in philosophy and natural sciences at the hands of Catholic institutions.

    Gibbon is highly one-sided and polemical in his approach – and should not be relied upon.

  2. In fact, the reality is that warfare upon the European continent was more limited under the dominance of the Vatican than it was in any other period of it’s history.

    It was only once secular monarchs started banishing the Vatican from influence in their domains and subverted Christianity to their own political aims in the style of Henry the VIII that violence and bloodshed really took off. And once the secular “Enlightenment” got into full swing, the death and destruction REALLY took off.

  3. Nice post Jared. I think the impulse to remain open and tolerant to other faiths is very hard for Christians to maintain once they have power. It’s tough to trust in the power of an argument over the power of force.

  4. Seth, I wouldn’t disagree with you. Gibbon was a child of the Enlightenment and, his nation was one that misused religion more than most, and perhaps the most cynically. That inconsistency was an important part of the rise of America, which was ironically built on brutal “un-godly” forces as well as religious freedom. He viewed America as part of the decline and fall of the British Empire whose breadth and influence were more vast than Rome, and its use of religion far more cynical.

    This is why I entitled the post “rethinking” the Great Apostasy. Mormons are generally taught Gibbon’s version and his view still holds sway among many Americans. Gibbon is dated, but he also remains quite relevant because of the shrewd common sense found in his approach to religious history. Part of his brilliance is was that he was not an blatant apologist for Christianity. Gibbon can be seen as a champion of rational conservatism, an intellectual compatriot of Edmund Burke – Churchill was a tremendous fan. Gibbon, and other conservative voices blunted wild-eyed liberalism – another attempt at Western ideological hegemony.

    I think what Gibbon’s history shows is how amazing Theodosius’ effort to unify Christianity was. Whatever Gibbon’s opinions of Christianity, that fact shows through. The feudal system that grew out of the collapse of the unified empire, and the “age of faith” that followed was, for the common person, more stable. I believe human unity is the only path to lasting peace and “common error” of Nicene Christianity has proven one of the more enduring forces of unity.

    Although both Mormons and Evangelicals might disagree, I think the “paganization” of Catholic and Orthodox Christianity was an extremely important missionary tactic. It merged the powerful streams of demotic religion with orthodox theology, a political necessity even in it contradictions.

    Also, the virtues of Julian, as described by Gibbon, also seem to have won dominance in the development of Catholicism which had the institutional wisdom to adopt forms of Greek pagan philosophy, including Julian’s neoplatonism, reformed and added upon by brilliant minds like St. Augustine, Aquinas, Leibniz, and Descartes, Pascal, Newton, etc.

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