Irony In History; Or, Was Gibbon An Infidel? -- By: James M. Macdonald

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 025:99 (Jul 1868)
Article: Irony In History; Or, Was Gibbon An Infidel?
Author: James M. Macdonald

Irony In History; Or, Was Gibbon An Infidel?

Rev. James M. Macdonald


1. The Charge Against Gibbon, As Stated By Dean Milman And Bishop Watson

Tee author of the “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” has been accused of resorting to irony and sarcasm in those parts of his work where he seems to speak approvingly of Christianity, especially in the fifteenth and sixteenth chapters. The charge, as reduced to distinct terms by those who profess to have made this history their study for the purpose of furnishing a corrective to its statements (or the manner of its statements), is as follows:

“The art of Gibbon,” says Milman (in his edition of the “Decline and Fall,” designed, professedly, to correct by notes such inaccuracies or misstatements as may have been detected, particularly with regard to Christianity), “or at least, the unfair impression produced by his two memorable chapters, consists in his confounding together in one indistinguishable mass, the origin and apostolic propagation of the new religion with its later progress……The main question, the divine origin of the religion, was dexterously eluded or speciously conceded by Gibbon. His plan enabled him to commence his account, in most parts, below the apostolic times; and it was only by the strength of the dark coloring with which he brought out the failings and the follies of the succeeding ages that a shadow of doubt and suspicion was thrown back on the primitive period of Christianity.”1

Among the various answers made to Gibbon on the first appearance of his work, Bishop Watson’s “Apology” is the

only one Milman considers as possessed of sufficient merit to render it worthy of notice. In his preface, above quoted, he describes it as “able,” but as being “rather a general argument than an examination of misstatements.’ “In assigning,” says Bishop Watson, “to this astonishing event [the early success of Christianity] five secondary causes, derived from the passions of the human heart and the general circumstances of mankind, you seem to some to have insinuated that Christianity, like other impostures, might have made its way in the world, though its origin had been as human as the means by which you suppose it was spread. It is no wish or intention of mine to fasten the odium of this insinuation upon you.”2

Statements of the objections to this history might be given from a great variety of sources, but none from better-informed or more careful writers. The gravamen of the whole appears to be that Gibbon explained...

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