Letters to the Churches of Asia - 13 - Pagan Converts in the Church

Chapter 13: The Pagan Converts in the Early Church

In one respect Ignatius is peculiarly instructive for the study of the early Asian Churches, in which the converts direct from Paganism must have been a numerous and important body. This peculiar position and spirit of Pagan converts (coming direct from Paganism), as distinguished from Jews or those Pagans who had come into the Church through the door of the Jewish synagogue, must engage our attention frequently during the study of the Seven Letters; and Ignatius will prove the best introduction.

The Pagan converts had not the preliminary education in Jewish thoughts and religious ideas which a previous acquaintance with the service of the synagogue had given those Gentiles who had been among "the God-fearing" before they came over to Christianity. The direct passage from Paganism to Christianity must have left a different mark on their nature. Doubtless, some or even many of them came from a state of religious indifference or of vicious and degraded life. But others, and probably the majority of them, must have previously had religious sensibility and religious aspirations. Now what became of those early religious ideas during their later career as Christians? If they had previously entertained any religious aspirations and thoughts, these must have sought expression, and occasionally met with stimulus and found partial satisfaction in some forms of Pagan worship or speculation. Did these men, when they as Christians looked back on their Pagan life, regard those moments of religious experience as being merely evil and devilish; or did they see that such actions had been the groping and effort of nature towards God, giving increased strength and vitality to their longing after God, and that those moments had been really steps in their progress, incomplete but not entirely wrong?

To this inevitable question Ignatius helps us to find an answer, applicable to some cases, though not, of course, to all. That he had been a convert from Paganism is inferred with evident justification by Lightfoot from his letter to the Romans. He was born into the Church out of due time, imperfect in nature, by an irregular and violent birth, converted late, after a career which was to him a lasting cause of shame and humiliation in his new life. That feeling might be considered as partly a cause of the profound humility which he afterwards felt towards the long-established Ephesian Church. Hence he writes to the Romans: "I do not give orders to you as Peter and Paul did: they were Apostles, I am a convict; they were free, but I am a slave to this very hour." In the last expression we may see a reference, not to his having been literally a slave (as many do), but to his having been formerly enslaved to the passions and desires of Paganism; from this slavery he can hope to be set free completely only through death; death will give him liberty, and already even in the journey to Rome and the preparation to meet death, "I am learning to put away every desire."

The remarkable passage in Eph. sect. 9 must arrest every reader's attention: "Ye are all companions in the way, God-bearers, shrine-bearers, Christ-bearers, and bearers of your holy things, arrayed from head to foot in the commandments of Jesus Christ; and I, too, taking part in the festival, am permitted by letter to bear you company." The life of the Ephesian Christians is pictured after the analogy of a religious procession on the occasion of a festival; life for them is one long religious festival and procession. Now at this time it is impossible to suppose that public processions could have formed part of their worship. Imperial law and custom, popular feeling, and the settled rule of conduct in the Church, all alike forbade such public and provocative display of Christian worship. Moreover it is highly improbable that the Church had as yet come to the stage when such ceremonial was admitted as part of the established ritual: the ceremonies of the Church were still of a very simple and purely private character. It was only when the ceremonial could be performed in public that it grew in magnificence and outward show.

Yet the passage sets before the readers in the most vivid way the picture of such a festal scene, with a troop of rejoicing devotees clad in the appropriate garments, bearing their religious symbols and holy things in procession through the streets. That is exactly the scene which was presented to the eyes of all Ephesians several times every year at the great festivals of the goddess; and Ignatius had often seen such processions in his own city of Antioch. He cannot but have known what image his words would call up in the minds of his readers, and he cannot but have intended to call up that image, point by point, and detail after detail. The heathen devotees were dressed for the occasion, mostly in white garments, with garlands of the sacred foliage (whatever tree or plant the deity preferred), while many of the principal personages wore special dress of a still more sacred character, which marked them as playing for the time the part of the god and of his attendant divine beings, and some were adorned with the golden crown either of their deity or of the Imperial religion. But the Ephesian Christians wear the orders of Christ. The heathen devotees carried images of their gods, both the principal deities and many associated beings. The Christian Ephesians in their life carry God and carry Christ always with them, for, as Ignatius has said in the previous sentence, their conduct in the ordinary affairs of life spiritualised those affairs, inasmuch as they did everything in Christ. Many of the heathen devotees carried in their processions small shrines containing representations of their gods; but the body of every true right-living Christian is the temple and shrine of his God. The heathen carried in the procession many sacred objects, sometimes openly displayed, sometimes concealed in boxes (like the sacred mystic things which were brought from Eleusis to Athens by one procession in order that a few days later they might be carried back by the great mystic procession to Eleusis for the celebration of the Mysteries); and at Ephesus an inscription of the period contains a long enumeration of various objects and ornaments which were to be carried in one of the great annual processions. But the Christians carry holiness itself with them, wherever they go and whatever they do.

How utterly different is the spirit of this passage from the Jewish attitude towards the heathen world! Every analogy that Ignatius here draws would have been to the Jews an abomination, the forbidden and hateful thing. It would have been loathsome to them to compare the things of God with the things of idols or devils. Ignatius evidently had never passed through the phase of Judaism; he had passed straight from Paganism to Christianity. He very rarely quotes from the Old Testament, and when he does his quotations are almost exclusively from Psalms and Isaiah, the books which would be most frequently used by Christians.

Hence he places his new religion directly in relation with Paganism. Christianity spirutalises and enlarges and ennobles the ceremonial of the heathen; but that ceremonial was not simply rejected by him as abominable and vile, for it was a step in the way of religion.

The point of view is noble and true, and yet it proved to be the first step in the path that led on by insensible degrees, during the loss of education in the Church, to the paganising of religion and the transformation of the Pagan deities into saints of the Church, Demeter into St. Demetrius, Achilles Pontarches into St. Phocas of Sinope, Poseidon into St. Nicolas of Myra, and so on. From these words of Ignatius it is easy to draw the moral, which assuredly Ignatius did not dream of, that the Church should express religious feeling in similar processions; and, as thought and feeling deteriorated, the step was taken.

The same true and idealised spirit is perceptible in other parts of Ignatius' letters. In Eph. sect. 10 he says: "Pray continually for the rest of mankind (i.e. those who are not Christians, and specially the Pagans), for there is in them a hope of repentance. Give them the opportunity of learning from your actions, if they will not hear you." The influence of St. Paul's teaching is here conspicuous: by nature the Gentiles do the things of the Law, if they only give their real nature free play, and do not degrade it (Rom 2:16).

Ignatius felt strongly the duty he owed to his former co-religionists, as Paul felt himself "a debtor both to Greeks and to Barbarians"; and just as the term "debtor" implies that Paul had received and felt himself bound to repay, such indubitably must have been the thought in the mind of Igantius. Ignatius learned the lesson from Paul, because he was prepared to learn it. Many have read him and have not learned it.

In this view new light is thrown on a series of passages in the letters of Ignatius, some of which are obscure, and one at least has been so little understood that the true reading is by many editors rejected, though Lightfoot's sympathetic feeling for Ignatius keeps him right, as it usually does; and Zahn independently has decided in favour of the same text.

One of the most characteristic and significant features in the writings of Ignatius is the emphasis that he lays on silence, as something peculiarly sacred and Divine. He recurs to this thought repeatedly. Silence is characteristic of God, speech of mankind. The more the bishop is silent, the more he is to be feared (Eph. sect. 6). The acts which Christ has done in silence are worthy of the Father; and he that truly possesses the Word of Christ is able even to hear His silence, so as to be perfect, so that through what he says he may be doing, and through his silence he may be understood (Eph. sect. 15). And so again he is astonished at the moderation of the Philadelphian bishop, whose silence is more effective than the speech of others.

So far the passages quoted, though noteworthy, do not imply anything more than a vivid appreciation of the value of reserve, so that speech should convey the impression of a latent and still unused store of strength. But the following passages do more; they show that a certain mystic and Divine nature and value were attributed by Ignatius to Silence; and in the light of those two passages, the words quoted above from Eph. sect. 15 are seen to have also a mystic value.

In Eph. sect. 19 he speaks of the three great Christian mysteries--the virginity of Mary, the birth of her Son, and the death of the Lord, "three mysteries shouting aloud (in the world of men), which were wrought in the Silence of God." In Magn. sect. 8 he speaks of God as having manifested Himself through His Son, who is His Word that proceeded from Silence.

Now, we must ask what was the origin of this mystic power that Ignatius assigns to Silence. Personally, I cannot doubt that his mind and thought were influenced by his recollection of the deep impression that certain Pagan Mysteries had formerly made on him.

It is mentioned in the Philosophumena, lib. v., that "the great and wonderful and most perfect mystery, placed before those who were [at Eleusis] initiated into the second and higher order, was a shoot of corn harvested in silence." In this brief description a striking scene is set before us: the hushed expectation of the initiated, the contrast with the louder and more crowded and dramatic scenes of the previous Mystic acts, as in absolute silence the Divine life works itself out to an end in the growing ear of corn, which is reaped before them. There can be no doubt, amid all the obscurity which envelopes the Eleusinian ceremonial, that great part of the effect which they produced on the educated and thoughtful, the intellectual and philosophic minds, lay in the skilful, dramatically presented contrast between the earlier naturalistic life, set before them in scenes of violence and repulsive horror, and the later reconciliation of the jarring elements in the peaceful Divine life, as revealed for the benefit of men by the Divine power, and shown on the mystic stage as perfected in profound silence. Think of the hierophant, a little before, shouting aloud, "a holy son Brimos the Lady Brimo has borne," as the culmination of a series of outrages and barbarities: then imagine the dead stillness, and the Divine life symbolised to the imagination of the sympathetic and responsive mystai in the growing and garnered ear of the Divinely revealed corn which dies only to live again, which is destroyed only to be useful.

The scene which we have described is mentioned only as forming part of the Eleusinian Mysteries; and it may be regarded as quite probable that Ignatius had been initiated at Eleusis. Initiation at Eleusis (which had in earlier times been confined to the Athenian people) was widened in later times so that all "Hellenes," i.e. all persons whose language and education and spirit were Greek, were admitted. Thus, for example, Apollonius of Tyana, who had been rejected in AD 51 on the ground, not that he was a foreigner, but that he was suspected of magic, was admitted to initiation in AD 55. But it is also true that (as is pointed out in Dr. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible, v., p. 126) "the Mysteries celebrated at different religious centres competed with one another in attractiveness," and they all borrowed from one another and "adapted to their own purposes elements which seemed to be attractive in others." Hence it may be that Ignatius had witnessed that same scene, or a similar one, in other Mysteries.

That the highest and most truly Divine nature is silent must have been the lesson of the Eleusinian Mysteries, just as surely as they taught--not by any formal dogmatic teaching (for the words uttered in the representation of the Divine drama before the initiated were concerned only with the dramatic action), but through the impression produced on those who comprehended the meaning of the drama, and (as the ancients say) it required a philosophic spirit and a reverent religious frame of mind to comprehend--that the life of man is immortal. Both those lessons were to Ignatius stages in the development of his religious consciousness; and the way in which, and the surroundings amid which, he had learned them affected his conception and declaration of the principles, the Mysteries of Christianity. Marcellus of Ancyra, about the middle of the fourth century, was influenced probably in the same way, when he declared that God was along with quietness and that, as early heretics had taught, in the beginning there was God and Silence.

The importance of Silence in the mystic ritual is fully appreciated by Dr. Dieterich in his valuable and fascinating book, Eine Mithrasliturgie (Leipzig, 1903) p. 42. Among the preparatory instructions given to the Mystes was this: "Lay thy right finger on thy mouth and say, Silence! Silence! Silence! symbol of the living imperishable God!" Silence is even addressed in prayer, "Guard me, Silence." Dr. Dieterich remarks that the capital S is needed in such an invocation.

Lightfoot considers (see his note on Trall. sect. 2) that when Ignatius speaks of the mysteries of Christianity, he has no more in his mind than "the wide sense in which the word is used by St. Paul, revealed truths." But we cannot agree in this too narrow estimate. To Ignatius there lies in the term a certain element of power. To him the "mysteries" of the Faith would have been very insufficiently described by such a coldly scientific definition as "revealed truths": such abstract lifeless terms were to him, as in Colossians 2:8, mere "philosophy and vain deceit." The "mysteries" were living, powerful realities, things of life that could move the heart and will of men and remake their nature. He uses the term, I venture to think, in a similar yet slightly different sense from Paul, who employs it very frequently. Paul, too, attaches to it something of the same idea of power; for "the mystery of iniquity" (2 Thess 2:7) is to him a real and strong enemy. But Ignatius seems to attach to the "mysteries" even more reality and objectivity than Paul does.

Surely Ignatius derived his idea of the "mysteries" partly at least from the experiences of his Pagan days. He had felt the strong influence of the grater Mysteries, to which some of the greatest thinkers among the Greeks bear testimony; and the Christian principles completed and perfected the ideas which had begun in his Pagan days.

This idea, that the religious conceptions of Paganism served as a preparatory stage leading up to Christianity, was held by many, as well as by Ignatius. Justin Martyr gave clear expression to it, and Eusebius works it out in his Praeparatio Evangelica. Those who were conscious that a real development of the religious sense had begun in their own mind during their Pagan days and experiences, and had been completed in their Christian life, must inevitably have held it; and there were many Pagans of a deeply religious nature, some of whom became Christians.

The change of spirit involved in this development through Paganism to Christianity is well expressed by a modern poet:--

Girt in the panther-fells,
Violets in my hair,
Down I ran through the woody dells,
Through the morning wild and fair,--
To sit by the road till the sun was high,
That I might see some god pass by.

Fluting amid the thyme
I dreamed through the golden day,
Calling through melody and rhyme:
"Iacchus! Come this way,--
From harrowing Hades like a king,
Vine leaves and glories scattering."

Twilight was all rose-red,
When, crowned with vine and thorn,
Came a stranger god from out the dead;
And his hands and feet were torn.
I knew him not, for he came alone:
I knew him not, whom I fain had known.

He said: "For love, for love,
I wear the vine and thorn."
He said: "For love, for love,
My hands and feet were torn:
For love, the winepress Death I trod."
And I cried in pain: "O Lord my God."

Mrs. Rachel Annand Taylor, Poems, 1904

That the same view should be strongly held in the Asian Churches was inevitable. That often it should be pressed to an extreme was equally inevitable; and one of its extreme forms was the Nicolaitan heresy, which the writer of the Seven Letters seems to have regarded as the most pressing and immediate danger to those Churches. That writer was a Jew, who was absolutely devoid of sympathy for that whole side of thought, alike in its moderate and its extreme forms. The moderate forms seemed to him lukewarm; the extreme forms were a simple abomination.

Such was the view of one school or class in the Christian Church. The opposite view, that the Pagan Mysteries were a mere abomination, is represented much more strongly in the Christian literature. There is not necessarily any contradiction between them. Ignatius felt, as we have said, that his Pagan life was a cause of lasting humiliation and shame to him, even though he was fully conscious that his religious sensibility had been developing through it. We need not doubt that he would have endorsed and approved every word of the charges which the Christian apologists made against the Mysteries. Both views are true, but both are partial: neither gives a complete statement of the case.

The mystic meaning that lay in even the grossest ceremonies of the Eleusinian and other Mysteries has been rightly insisted upon by Miss J. E. Harrison in her Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (especially chapter 8), a work well worthy of being studied. Miss Harrison has the philosophic insight which the ancients declare to be necessary in order to understand and learn from the Mysteries. Their evil side is to her non-existent, and the old Christian writers who inveighed against the gross and hideous rites enacted in the Mysteries are repeatedly denounced by her in scathing terms as full of unclean imaginings--though she fully admits, of course, the truth of the facts which they allude to or describe in detail. The authoress, standing on the lofty place of philosophic idealism, can see only the mystic meaning, while she is too far removed above the ugliness to be cognisant of it. But to shut one's eyes to the evil does not annihilate it for the world, though it may annihilate it for the few who shut their eyes. Plato in the Second Book of the Republic is as emphatic as Firmicus or Clemens in recognising the harm that those ugly tales and acts of the gods did to the mass of the people. This must all be borne in mind while studying her brilliant work.