But it is objected, that the Christian church did not enjoy the assistance of the civil power during the first three centuries. If this had been such a benefit, God would certainly have conferred it upon her. Besides, she flourished as long as she was without it, but became corrupt as soon as she received it. We answer, that it does not become us to prescribe to God, with respect to “the times and the seasons” at which he shall confer any blessing which he has promised. He discovers his sovereignty in this matter, and has wise reasons for his conduct, of which we may be left in ignorance, or which we may overlook.
The possession of the land of Canaan was promised, as an eminent blessing, to the seed of Abraham; but it was hundreds of years before he actually bestowed it upon them. They “sojourned in the land of promise as in a strange country dwelling in tabernacles.” Even when “the time of the promise drew nigh, and the people multiplied,” they were kept under the iron rod of persecution, and were made to pass through the waste and howling wilderness; nor did they fail to abuse the pleasant land and quiet habitation, after they were put in possession of it. Besides, it is easy to perceive, that, if there is any force in the objection, it may be retorted. It cannot be denied that there are promises given to the church respecting the godly kings and magistrates.
Now, in whatever sense these are explained, it may be asked, If these were to be of so great advantage to the church, why did not God give them at the beginning of Christianity? There were other means besides civil power, which God declined to employ in the propagation of the gospel. Human learning, though lawful in itself, and capable of being improved for the advancement of Christianity, was overlooked. God did choose “the foolish things of the world to confound the wise,” as well as the “weak things of the world to confound the mighty“; and he adopted this method, to give a signal demonstration that the gospel was from heaven, and that its propagation throughout the world, not only without the aid of, but in spite of the most determined opposition from the united efforts of human wit and power, was the work of his own hand. Because the persons whom Christ chose at first to propagate the gospel among the nations, and the greater part of the pastors of the primitive church, were “unlearned men“; because religion flourished greatly at that time; or because the introduction of human learning into the church brought along with it many corruptions, shall we adopt another Sectarian error, maintain that human learning is altogether useless, if not pernicious to the church, and abolish our colleges and halls of Divinity? The one is not more unreasonable than the other.
Nor is it a fact that the church continued to flourish always until she obtained the support of the civil powers; or that this was the first and sole cause of her corruption. The spirit of Antichrist did long before work (2 Thes. 2:7); numerous errors prevailed; superstitions of different kinds had crept in; a spirit of pride and ambition had discovered itself among the governors of the church; bishops had exalted themselves above the presbyters; and the government of the church was, previously to this, much altered from what it had been in the days of the apostles. That the enjoyment of external peace and prosperity, and the countenance of the civil powers among other things contributed, or were abused to the increase of these evils, who can doubt?
That the Christian Emperors, in the favors which they conferred on the church, acted in many instances injudiciously, we readily grant; their donations to the bishops were excessive, and tended to cherish a spirit of secular ambition and grandeur; and the alterations which were soon introduced into the external form and government of the church, raised that hierarchy by which the “man of sin” attained his great ascendancy. But we must not confound the abuse of this power with its due use, as far as it took place; not only in granting freedom from persecution (which the Christians had enjoyed at intervals under Pagan emperors), but in the public settlement of the laws on the side of Christianity, the decided countenance given unto it by government, with the encouragements conducive to the spread of the gospel, and the maintenance of the institutions of Jesus Christ, which it bestowed.
This distinction is carefully observed in the intimations of prophecy, with reference to this event. The overthrow of the pagan form of the Roman Empire, with the conversion of its authority to the support of Christianity, is there celebrated as the triumph of the gospel, the coming of “the kingdom of God,” the casting down of Satan from heaven, and the exaltation of the church to that place which he had occupied, Revelation 12:5, 8-10.(34) Although Satan, enraged at being deprived of his authority, attacked the church in another way, and employed the very privileges now conferred upon her, to her corruption and injury, this did not prevent the church from rejoicing at the command of God in these privileges; and we should suspect those sentiments which lead us to opposite exercise. “And I heard,” says John, “a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night,” Revelation 12:10. If the kings of the earth “gave their kingdom to the beast,” it was also predicted, that they should “hate the whore and make her desolate”; and the word of God contains promises of the countenance of civil authority to the church, subsequent to the reign of Antichrist; so that this is not necessarily connected either with Antichristianism, or with the corruption of religion.
(34) “This shortly, is fulfilled,” says Mr. Durham, “when, after heathenish persecution for three hundred years had prevailed, Christians were advanced, Constantine being made emperor, and Christianity was established by a law. It is as the witnesses were taken to heaven, chap. 11:12. That was, by a public authorized church condition and state, after Antichrist’s persecution; so here, religion authoritatively is established, which never was before, and Christians countenanced after heathen persecution is over.” Durham Commentary on the Book of Revelation, chap. 12, lect. 1, pg. 449.
“The collective body of church members,” says Mr. Gib, “brought forth by the woman, the church, at the time here referred to, is said, in metaphorical terms, to have been caught up unto God and his throne; which is evidently the same with the heaven from which the great dragon and his angels are said to have been cast out: and this can only be applied to the exaltation of professing Christians, their being raised up to the enjoyment of the laws and authority of the Roman empire on their side; a privilege which had dreadfully belonged to the great dragon, called the Devil and Satan, for about three hundred years before. This happy exaltation, took place under Constantine the Great, etc. Mr. Gib’s Memorial, etc., p. 9.
See also The Church in Relation to the State (1872), chapter IV, by James Gibson. “It is often claimed that the Establishment Principle instituted by Constantine in the 300′s was the major contributing factor to the later Romish and priestly domination of the Church. Gibson argues from history that the Church would have been much helped from the Establishment Principle under Constantine, but in fact it was due to the Voluntary Principle that the later Romish domination came about” (Reformed Books Online, The Establishment Principle).