Edward Gibbon – Historian d. 1794
Christians and the Fall of Rome, Penguin Books – Great Ideas
"Truth and reason seldom find so favourable reception in the world"
salutary - producing healthy/beneficial effects
Perfidious – deceitful, untrustworthy
Extirpate – eradicate
Inculcate – instil
Fetters – chain/manacle
interpose - interfere
Imperceptible - not perceived (i.e. something really slight, incremental or subtle)
Edward Gibbon posits 5 causes behind the spread of Christianity over other religions in Rome:
1. Inflexible and intolerant zeal
2. Doctrine of future life
3. Miraculous powers ascribed to the church
4. Christian morality
5. Union and discipline of the Christian republic
#2 Doctrine of future life
“The doctrine of the future state was scarcely considered among the devout polytheists of Greece and Rome as a fundamental article of faith”
“When the promise of eternal happiness was proposed to mankind, on condition of adopting the faith, and of observing the precepts of the gospel, it is no wonder that so advantageous an offer have been accepted by great numbers of every religion, of every rank, and of every province in the Roman empire”
Prophecy of the 2nd coming
Edward Gibbon does touch on this Biblical idea of Jesus returning during the lifetime of the disciples. Clearly this did not happen. I think the footnote mentioning Grotius is worth looking into further.
“The near approach of this wonderful event had been predicted by the apostles; the tradition of it was preserved by their earliest disciples, and those who understood in their literal sense the discourses of Christ himself, were obliged to expect the second and glorious coming of the Son of Man in the clouds, before the generation was totally extinguished, which had beheld his humble condition upon earth, and which might still be witness of the calamities of the Jews under Vespasian or Hadrian. The revolution of seventeen centuries has instructed us not to press too closely the mysterious language of prophecy and revelation; but as long as, for wise purpose, this error was permitted to subsist in the church , it was productive of the most salutary effects on the faith and practice of Christians, who lived in the awful expectation of that moment...*”
*This expectation was countenanced by the twenty-fourth chapter of St Matthew, and by the first epistle of St Paul to the Thessalonians, Erasmus removes the difficulty by the help of allegory and metaphor; and the learned Grotius ventures to insinuate, that, for wise purposes, the pious deception was permitted to take place.
#3 Supernatural gifts
The WCF denies the church or Christians has this power any longer. Charismatics believe spiritual gifts to have continued. Gibbon argued the notion of Christians and the church being able to perform exorcisms of demons, healings and even resurrections would have attracted converts. The power of prayer effect is worth keeping in mind too. If a pagan was not having having a desired outcome in his or her life whilst praying to Roman deities he/she may have been inclined to enter the church considering they were making claims of such supernatural feats.
"Supernatural gifts, which even in this life were ascribed to the Christians above the rest of mankind, must have conduced to their own comfort, and very frequently to the conviction of infidels. Besides the occasional prodigies, which might sometimes be effected by the immediate interposition of the Deity when he suspended the laws of Nature for the service of religion, the Christian church, from the time of the apostles and their disciples, has claimed an uninterrupted succession of miraculous powers, the gift of tongues, of vision and of prophecy, the power of expelling daemons, of healing the sick, and of raising the dead. The knowledge of foreign languages was frequently communicated to the contemporaries of Irenaeus, though Irenaeus himself was left to struggle with difficulties of a barbarous dialect whilst he preached the gospel to the natives of Gaul."
“The expulsion of daemons from the bodies of those unhappy persons whom they had been permitted to torment, was considered as a signal though ordinary triumph of religion, and is repeatedly alleged by the ancient apologists, as the most convincing evidence of the truth of Christianity”
I think the story of the bishop of Antioch being challenged to provide evidence of such supernatural powers claimed by the church is pertinent for today given the sketch, nebulous claims of miraculous healings and resurrections coming out of Christian faith healers and evangelists - especially those acting in Africa. Reinhardt Bonnke and Daniel Kolenda types as well as the more notorious come into mind.
“..in the days of Irenaeus , about the end of the second century, the resurrection of the dead was very far from being esteemed an uncommon event; that the miracle was frequently performed on necessary occasions, by great fasting and the joint supplication of the church of the place, and that the persons thus restored to their prayers, had lived afterwards among them many years”
“A noble Grecian had rested on this important ground the whole controversy, and promised Theophilus, bishop of Antioch, that if he could be gratified with the sight of a single person who had been actually raised from the dead, he would immediately embrace the Christian religion. It is somewhat remarkable, that the prelate of the first eastern church, however anxious for the conversion of his friend, thought proper to decline this fair and reasonable challenge”
Gibbon points out there must have been an era for the cessation belief of supernatural gifts: most commonly fixed era by Protestants is the conversion of Constantine. He does believe the churches which claimed miraculous powers would have attracted curious/credulous pagans.
“The most curious, or the most credulous, among the Pagans, were often persuaded to enter into a society, which asserted an actual claim of miraculous powers”
#4 Christian morality
This claim of extreme Christian sinners being reformed into moral people is used as an evidence for Christianity (for the Holy Spirit to be specific) but back then this process of rehabilitation of the sinner would involve peer pressure, honour based guilt and incentive as well as somebody constantly watching over you like some sort of parole/probation officer! Not to mention, some of these sinners were refused redemption in their pagan temples and thus sought "forgiveness" elsewhere - the church.
“It is a very ancient reproach, suggested by the ignorance or the malice of infidelity, that the Christians allured into their party the most atrocious criminals, who as soon as they were touched by a sense of remorse, were easily persuaded to wash away, in the water of baptism, the guilt of their past conduct , for which the temples of the gods refused to grant them any expiation”
“when the new converts had been enrolled in the number of the faithful, and were admitted to the sacraments of the church, they found themselves restrained from relapsing into their past disorders by another consideration of a less spiritual, but of a very innocent and respectable nature. Any particular society that has departed from the great body of the nation, or the religion to which it belonged, immediately becomes the object of universal as well as invidious observation. In proportion to the smallness of its numbers, the character of the society may be affected by the virtue and vices of the persons who compose it; and every member is engaged to watch with the most vigilant attention over his behaviour, and over that of his brethren, since, as he must expect to incur a part of the common disgrace, he may hope to enjoy a share of the common reputation.”
Overall it is a worthy read. Of course it was written in the 18th century so one can imagine historical scholarship of that period in relation to Christianity may have moved on but in reality his speculated thoughts on tangible reasons why some pagans would be attracted to Christianity are valuable.
Paula Fredriksen: Paul was NOT a Trinitarian
Wayne Grudem Shoe-horning Partial Trinitarianism into the Old Testament
Edgar G Foster: Trinity Came After the Council of Nicea
Quran’ic Exegesis of al-Ikhlas as a Corrective of Trinitarian Theo-Christology by Ali Ataie
Tovia Singer: Does the New Testament Teach Jesus is God?