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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Elizalde

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Gibbon | Chapters 15-16 re Primitive Christianity

Chapter XV: The Progress of the Christian Religion, and the Sentiments, Manners, Numbers, and Condition, of the primitive Christians

(1) How much did the the mythology of the Greeks cloud and/or clarify the early Christian Gentile's understanding of the spiritual world - his/her concept of angels and demons?

(2) Gibbon writes on page 475: "It is this deep impression of supernatural truths, which has been so much celebrated under the name of faith; a state of mind described as the surest pledge of the divine favor and of future felicity, and recommended as the first or perhaps the only merit of a Christian. According to the more rigid doctors, the moral virtues, which may be equally practiced by infidels, are destitute of any value or efficacy in the work of our justification. But the primitive Christian demonstrated his faith by his virtues; and it was very justly supposed that the divine persuasion which enlightened or subdued the understanding, must, at the same time, purify the heart and direct the actions of the believer." According to Gibbon, what was the relationship between faith and virtue for the primitive Christian?

(3) Gibbon writes on pages 478-479: "In our present state of existence, the body is so inseparably connected with the soul, that is seems to be our interest to taste, with innocence and moderation, the enjoyments of which that faithful companion is susceptible. Very different was the reasoning of our devout predecessors; vainly aspiring to imitate the perfection of angels, they disdained, or they affected to disdain, every earthly and corporeal delight. Some of our senses indeed are necessary for our preservation, others for our subsistence, and others again for our information, and thus far it was impossible to reject the use of them. The first sensation of pleasure was marked as the first moment of their abuse. The unfeeling candidate for Heaven was instructed, not only to resist the grosser allurements of the taste or smell, but even to shut his ears against the profane harmony of sounds, and to view with indifference the most finished productions of human art." How does our own concept of the unity or disunity of body and soul influence our appreciation or disdain of the arts?

(4) According to Gibbon, what motivated the emergence of church officers (bishops, presbyters, etc.) and eventually an "episcopal form of government" that would ultimately resemble "a great federative republic"?

Chapter XVI: The Conduct of the Roman Government towards the Christians, from the Reign of Nero to that of Constantine

(1) How compatible was the primitive Christian's doctrine of the depravity of man with the pagan philosophy of the time? Under what circumstances might your own theology and philosophy be separate and incompatible with one another?

(2) Gibbon has claimed that early ecclesiastical writings have romanticized or exaggerated the persecution experienced by the primitive Christian church. Do you agree with this claim? Gibbon has also characterized such writing to be a violation of "one of the fundamental laws of history" (page 577). What are the fundamental laws of [writing] history?

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