Posted by: Standing Solus Christus | May 31, 2008

The Greco-Roman cultures from which the Church emerges – Part 3

The Greco-Roman cultures from which the Church emerges – Part 3


The imperial accomplishment of Rome was significant and historians continue to wax eloquent in describing their achievements.  The praises of Rome that are most touted are its equitable adjustment of taxation, impartial administration of the law, founding of cities and public works, the unimpeded development of commerce, extension of citizenship privileges and local self-government, which for the first time opened up wide prospects of advancement for all freemen.  Above all Rome brought the effective defense of the frontiers and maintenance of universal peace, which facilitated the successful implementation of the aforementioned benefits so the true nature of the imperial system would be disclosed.  Thus, justice and order was extended to many more people than had realized these benefits previously.  Of course it wasn’t perfect, but it was a period of prosperity and peace for a significant amount of people.


The eighteenth century historian, Edward Gibbon, in his work on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire wrote of the period 96-180 AD.


If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world when the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would without hesitation name that period which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commotus.  The vast extent of the Roman Empire was governed by absolute power under the guidance of virtue and wisdom.  The armies were restrained by the firm but gentle hand of four successive emperors whose characters and authority demanded involuntary respect.  The forms of the civil administration were carefully preserved by Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the Antonines, (Five Good Emperors) who delighted in the image of liberty, and were pleased with considering themselves as the accountable ministers of the laws. 


However eloquent one may wax about 84 years of history, the very limit of that point’s to the problems of sustaining it.  One of the great problems that the empire posed was the fracturing of the life of the Greek republics and Roman republics.  In ancient Greece and Rome, according to republican ideas, human beings were fulfilled ultimately by their service to the state and their involvement in ruling and directing the life of the state.  Thus, to be civilized in a profound sense was to be involved in politics and the life of the growing culture of order and liberty of the republic.  The coming of the empire, however, shifted the emphasis of this task from ordinary people to that of the emperor.  What used to be the responsibility of all the people in the empire now primarily remained within the scope of the emperor.  This causes the average citizen to rapidly lose a sense of political fulfillment in everyday life.  Since the ability for citizens to be involved in the shaping of political policy is lost in the shift from the republic to the empire, the only individuals who could sustain such involvement were government bureaucrats.   These individuals would be involved in carrying out the public policy, not necessarily shaping or creating it.   


Therefore, the notion that an individual was ultimately fulfilled in the participation of shaping civic policies through public service begins to ebb.  This meant that increasingly, thoughtful people in the Roman Empire, sought fulfillment, ideals, inspiration and goals in other parts of life other than public service.  This growing cultural attitude in the Roman Empire comes to fruition in the interest of philosophy and in mystery religions.  So the notion of religion in a more private realm can bring fulfillment in life, begins to spread.  This is particularly found in the religion of Mithra from the East that attracted the devotion of many Roman soldiers.  Mithra was a kind of sun god who in particular was thought to aid and empower warriors, which results in the construction of temples throughout the empire. There was a great fascination in the Egyptian mysteries relative to the goddess Isis, especially among women, which results in construction of temples throughout the empire.  As people were seeking a type of fulfillment in other areas life this fosters a favorable environment for spread of Christianity. In the providence of God this was the setting that Christianity entered into the Roman world. 


An interesting question that historians have pondered and considered about this period revolves around the factors that caused Christianity to spread and grow.  Sometimes Christians get nervous about this analysis who would like to conclude that it grows just because it’s true and the Spirit of God accompanies its preaching.  It’s possible that we do not need to set these things over and against each other, they are not necessarily competing notions, but could quite reasonably be complementary in nature.  We certainly believe that Christianity grows, because it is true and the Spirit of God accompanies it.  However, this should not preclude us from identifying the factors or means that God providentially used to allow these things to be realized.  It does not undermine divine sovereignty; on the contrary, this task seems to actually fortify a more robust affirmation of divine sovereignty.  The Spirit of God not only sets up events to work powerfully, but also sets up the circumstances that lend to fulfillment of said events.  During the first century the Roman Empire had providentially established an extremely unified Mediterranean world.  This world enjoyed peace and prosperity, efficient travel and possessed a spiritual hunger that made it conducive for the spread of the Gospel. 






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