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Heathenism is religion in its wild growth on the soil of fallen human nature, a darkening of the original consciousness of God, a deification of the rational and irrational creature, and a corresponding corruption of the moral sense, giving the sanction of religion to natural and unnatural vices.
Even the religion of Greece, which, as an artistic product of the imagination, has been justly styled the religion of beauty, is deformed by this moral distortion. It utterly lacks the true conception of sin, and consequently the true conception of holiness. It regards to sin, not as perverseness of will and an offense against the gods, but as a folly of the understanding and an offense against men, often even proceeding from the gods themselves; for “Infatuation,” or Moral Blindness (Ἄτη), is a “daughter of Jove,” and a goddess, though cast from Olympus, and the source of all mischief upon the earth. Homer knows no devil, but he puts a devilish element into his deities. The Greek gods, and also the Roman gods, who were copied from the former, are mere men and women, in whom Homer and the popular faith saw and worshipped the weaknesses and vices of the Grecian character, as well as its virtues, in magnified forms. The gods are born but never die. They have bodies and senses, like mortals, only in colossal proportions. They eat and drink, though only nectar and ambrosia. They are awake and fall asleep. They travel, but with the swiftness of thought. They mingle in battle. They cohabit with human beings, producing heroes or demigods. They are limited to time and space. Though sometimes honored with the attributes of omnipotence and omniscience, and called holy and just, yet they are subject to an iron fate (Moira), fall under delusion, and reproach each other with folly and crime. Their heavenly happiness is disturbed by all the troubles of earthly life. Even Zeus or Jupiter, the patriarch of the Olympian family, is cheated by his sister and wife Hera (Juno), with whom he had lived three hundred years in secret marriage before he proclaimed her his consort and queen of the gods, and is kept in ignorance of the events before Troy. He threatens his fellows with blows and death and makes Olympus tremble when he shakes his locks in anger. The gentle Aphrodite or Venus bleeds from a spear wound on her finger. Mars is felled with a stone by Diomedes. Neptune and Apollo have to serve for hire and are cheated. Hephaestus limps and provokes a burst of uproarious laughter. The gods are involved by their marriages in perpetual jealousies and quarrels. They are full of envy and wrath, hatred and lust, prompt men to crime, and provoke each other to lying and cruelty, perjury, and adultery. The Iliad and Odyssey, the most popular poems of the Hellenic genius, are a chronique scandale use of the gods. Hence Plato banished them from his ideal Republic. Pindar, Aeschylos, and Sophocles also rose to loftier ideas of the gods and breathed a purer moral atmosphere; but they represented the exceptional creed of a few, while Homer expressed the popular belief. Truly we have no cause to long with Schiller for the return of the “gods of Greece,” but would rather join the poet in his joyful thanksgiving:
“Einen zu bereichern unter allen,
Musste diese Götterwelt vergehn.”
Notwithstanding this essential apostasy from truth and holiness, heathenism was religion, a groping after “the unknown God.” By its superstition, it betrayed the need for faith. Its polytheism rested on a dim monotheistic background; it subjected all the gods to Jupiter, and Jupiter himself to a mysterious fate. It had at bottom the feeling of dependence on higher powers and reverence for divine things. It preserved the memory of a golden age and of a fall. It had the voice of conscience, and a sense, obscure though it was, of guilt. It felt the need for reconciliation with deity and sought that reconciliation by prayer, penance, and sacrifice. Many of its religious traditions and usages were faint echoes of the primal religion; and its mythological dreams of the mingling of the gods with men, of demigods, of Prometheus delivered by Hercules from his helpless sufferings, were unconscious prophecies and fleshly anticipations of Christian truths.
This alone explains the great readiness with which heathens embraced the gospel, to the shame of the Jews.
There was a spiritual Israel scattered throughout the heathen world, that never received the circumcision of the flesh, but the unseen circumcision of the heart by the hand of that Spirit which blows where it wishes and is not bound to any human laws and to ordinary means. The Old Testament furnishes several examples of true piety outside of the visible communion with the Jewish church, in the persons of Melchizedek, the friend of Abraham, the royal priest, the type of Christ; Jethro, the priest of Midian; Rahab, the Canaanite woman and hostess of Joshua and Caleb; Ruth, the Moabitess and ancestress of our Savior; King Hiram, the friend of David; the queen of Sheba, who came to admire the wisdom of Solomon; Naaman the Syrian; and especially Job, the sublime sufferer, who rejoiced in the hope of his Redeemer.
Even Augustine, exclusive as he was, adduces the case of Job in proof of the assertion that the kingdom of God under the Old dispensation was not confined to the Jews, and then adds: “Divinitus autem provisum fuisse non dubito, ut ex hoc uno sciremus, etiam per alias gentes esse potuisse, qui secundum Deum vixerunt, eique placuerunt, pertinentes ad spiritualem Hierusalem.” (Do not doubt that it was divinely provided, in order that from this one case, we should know, that there might have been given to other nations, who lived according to God, and have pleased Him, that relate to the spiritual Jerusalem.) De Civit. Dei, xviii. 47.
The elements of truth, morality, and piety scattered throughout ancient heathenism, may be ascribed to three sources. In the first place, man, even in his fallen state, retains some traces of the divine image, a knowledge of God (Rom. 1:19, τὸ γνωστὸν τοῦ θεοῦ), however weak, a moral sense or conscience (Rom 2:14-15), and a longing for union with the Godhead, for truth and for righteousness. (See Acts 17:3, 27-28,) In this view we may, with Tertullian, call the beautiful and true sentences of a Socrates, a Plato, an Aristotle, of Pindar, Sophocles, Cicero, Virgil, Seneca, Plutarch, “the testimonies of a soul constitutionally Christian,” of a nature predestined to Christianity. Secondly, some account must be made of traditions and recollections, however faint, coming down from the general primal revelations to Adam and Noah. But the third and most important source of the heathen anticipations of truth is the all-ruling providence of God, who has never left himself without a witness. Particularly must we consider, with the ancient Greek fathers, the influence of the divine Logos before his incarnation, who was the tutor of mankind, the original light of reason, shining in the darkness and lighting every man, the sower scattering in the soil of heathendom the seeds of truth, beauty, and virtue. – Comp. John 1:4, 5, 9-10.
The flower of paganism, with which we are concerned here, appears in the two great nations of classic antiquity, Greece and Rome. With the language, morality, literature, and religion of these nations, the apostles came directly into contact, and through the whole first age, the church moves on the basis of these nationalities. These, together with the Jews, were the chosen nations of the ancient world and shared the earth among them. The Jews were chosen for things eternal, to keep the sanctuary of the true religion. The Greeks prepared the elements of natural culture, of science and art, for the use of the church. The Romans developed the idea of law, and organized the civilized world in a universal empire, ready to serve the spiritual universality of the gospel. Both Greeks and Romans were unconscious servants of Jesus Christ, “the unknown God.”
These three nations, by nature at bitter enmity among themselves, joined hands in the superscription on the cross, where the holy name and the royal title of the Redeemer stood written, by the command of the heathen Pilate, “in Hebrew and Greek and Latin.” – John 19:20
by Philip Schaff and David Schley Schaff