Saturday, May 14, 2011

MacCulloch, Chapters 5 and 6

Oxford historian Diarmaid MacCulloch concludes Part II of his book, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, with chapters 5 and 6.

The title of Chapter 5 raises a question: "The Prince: Ally or Enemy?" MacCulloch begins by tracing the history of the church's relationship to the Roman Empire during the second century. Here, he offers a good description of how, to the Romans, the boldness of the Christians seemed like a provocation, how their aloofness created suspicion, and how their distinctive use of political language represented an affront to imperial authority. The Christians worshipped none of the traditional gods. Were they atheists? In their assemblies, it was said that they ate flesh and drank blood. Were they cannibals? Suspicion and resentment sometimes resulted in the martyrdom of Christians, terrible ordeals that resulted in the church having even more heroes. One can only wonder why MacCulloch ignores one of the earliest and most-interesting episodes in the history of Rome's various encounters with early Christianity: the conflict over the Cult of the Emperor in the province of Asia during the reign of Domitian, the unmistakable back story of the New Testament's Book of Revelation.

In a section on the "Third-Century Imperial Crisis," MacCulloch describes how in that period the borders of the Empire were receding. Among the biggest problems was weak leadership and governance. As a result, imperial government was reduced to "a police state" (167). "From Persecution to Persecution" describes the organized attempts of Decius (mid-3rd century) and Diocletian (early 4th) to obliterate Christianity. Finally, in a section on "Kings and Christians," MacCulloch provides a good overview of the Syriac-speaking church in the east. Once again, he makes a few remarks indicating that he has a bit of an axe to grind. Having referred to the "sheer diversity" of early Christianity, he remarks that it serves as "a vital lesson to learn for modern Christians who wish to impose a uniformity on Christian belief and practice which has never in fact existed" (176-77). This section of the chapter includes a good description of the Syriac-speaking church in the East.

Chapter 6, "The Imperial Church," begins with a section on "Constantine and the God of Battles." MacCulloch describes the development of Christianity under the patronage of the emperor who established the city of Constantinople and who led to the development of the church's organizational structure. Next, the author discusses the rise of monasticism as a reaction to Christianity's greater accommodation to and acceptance from the larger society. And he tells the stories of Pachomius, who originated monasteries, and Antony, who retreated to the desert and became the original hermit. MacCulloch also relates the story of Arius of Alexandria who reportedly said of Christ, "There was when he was not." Christ was created by the Father! Eventually, Constantine summoned the bishops of the Empire to Nicaea in 325. Homoousios was the term used in the proceedings of the council to affirm that Christ was "of one substance" with the Father (214). The Council of Constantinople, held in 381, finally outlawed Arianism. But, suppressed, it flourished among the Goths and Vandals, who lived outside the borders of the Empire and who apparently adopted heretical positions as a way of opposing Roman power.

The later Miaphysite (also called "Monophysite") controversy did not deal with the earlier theological question (how God the Father was different from, but similar to, Christ). Instead, this controversy took up the question of how to describe Christ's divine and human nature(s). By this time, the new power-politics character of Christianity clearly shows. Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Constantinople all vied power, not to mention Rome. In the debate over the Christological question, the Antiocheans were much more prepared to talk about Jesus's human nature than were the Alexandrians. Antioch had always given stronger emphasis to the literal sense of the Bible. By the year 400, the term Theotokos, "bearer of God" was already a common way of describing Mary. This was a result of the high Christology affirmed in the Nicean creed. Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople, trained in the way of Antioch, rejected the emphasis placed on Theotokos. It should be balanced, he said, by the term Anthropotokos, "bearer of a human." The Council of Ephesus (431) condemned Nestorius. Finally, the Council of Chalcedon (451) proclaimed that the Father and Son are co-equal, and that the humanity and divinity of Christ are co-equal. In this way, Chalcedon was conclusive and definitive regarding both the Trinitarian and Christological controversies.


Wade Tannehill said...

I'm enjoying the reviews but you're not making me want to buy the book (Not that this is your purpose). I almost did once because it was half price, but figured that the information is probably stuff I already have in the many other books on my shelves.

This guy's penchant for finding false contradictions and debunking the Four Gospels makes me want to save my money. I've argued these points in the margins of other books already.

But your reviews are good for an overview of early church history, some of which I had forgotten.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Thanks, Wade. As you can tell, I'm highlighting a lot of those points where MacCulloch rubs me the wrong way. He sometimes goes a little out of his way to talk down to conservative Protestants. I suppose that they've hit him over the head with a Bible a few times. MacCulloch is the son of an Anglican priest. He himself is "openly gay" and is a deacon in the Church of England. He has chosen not to apply for the priesthood, reportedly because he doesn't want to be involved in the controversy that would be sure to follow. But that seems strange since he appears to have been out on the front lines of that cultural and ecclesiastical war for decades. So why would he choose not to fight that battle?

Anyway, to be fair, MacCulloch's book seems especially good in its emphasis that from Jersusalem earliest Christianity moved not only north and west, but also south and east. For example, he tells the stories of early Christianity in places like Ethiopia and China. Also, the book includes several very good maps and four sets of plates, some color and some black-n-white.

At this point, I'm forcing myself to finish the book because I have to report on it later this year.

Wade Tannehill said...

Yes, the emphasis on the asouth and east is one thing that does make me consider the book. Maybe I'll check it out from a library. These areas are so important and so overlooked.