Monday, March 5, 2018

What I learnt from early church history

Here I want to go back and review some of what struck me from the Early Church history course.

The early church lived and grew in a context of a violent society.
The Romans maintained their power and the stability of their empire violently. Christians were persecuted as a threat to the empire and an object of ridicule for their weakness.
This video graphically illustrates this.  (Warning: it is violent!)

This violent environment was true until 313 AD when the Edict of  Milan by the two Emperors [Constantine (West) and Licinius (East)] freedom of conscience in worship. In 380 AD, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire.

How did Christianity spread so widely and effectively throughout the Graeco-Roman world?

In 1917 T. R. Glover, a Cambridge University lecturer, published The Jesus of History, which examined this question and included the following much-quoted sentences on page 71:
Here we touch what I think one of the greatest wonders that history has to show. How did the Church do it? If I may invent or adapt three words, the Christian "out-lived" the pagan, "out-died" him, and "out-thought" him. He came into the world and lived a great deal better than the pagan; he beat him hollow in living....
Appreciating the violent context of the early church one can also better appreciate the context of the Book of Revelation. It is not some secretly coded prediction about the course of world history. Rather, it is a call for Christians to persevere faithfully in the face of suffering and persecution. Justice will be done. The humble and faithful will be vindicated. The rich, powerful, arrogant, and violent will be judged.

The limitations of language.
Concepts such as the Trinity and the co-existing divine and human natures of Jesus are so profound, complex, and subtle that any short statement is going to be somewhat inadequate, lacking some completeness and precision. That does not mean that we should not try. But, we should be humble and be mindful of the limitations.

Doctrine does matter.
Ideas and beliefs have consequences.
For example, the Donatist controversy, became entangled with differing
ideas about the nature of salvation and qualifications for church leadership.
This affected very practical and personal matters such as
who was allowed to remain in leadership and whether Christians who had
failed in the face of persecution were allowed back into fellowship.

Doctrines can divide.
Furthermore, personalities and power struggles an become entangled with disagreements about beliefs. People become so enraged at their opponents that they will resort to violence.

Hairsplitting about words?
The Arian controversy came to a head in the Council of Nicea in 325 and concerned the true nature of the relationship between the Father and the Son. In was encapsulated in a preference for
homoiouios [similar substance/essence]
homoouios [same substance].
The only difference between the two words is the letter i [iota] in the middle.
This is arguably the origin of the common phrase used today “it does not make one iota of a difference.”
The Arians [anti-Arians] claimed the Son was of “similar” [same] substance as the Father.

The disjuncture between belief and practice, i.e. hypocrisy.
Divisions about doctrine, sometimes about subtle wordings, even led to violence. For me the most striking and disturbing was the case of a bishop who was murdered at the altar following a council debate.

The mixed legacy of Constantine.
Following his conversion in AD 312 the emperor changed his attitude to the church. He eventually made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire. This totally changed the nature and role of the church. Constantine changed the status of the church from a poor marginalised and persecuted community to a well resourced and respectable institution with strong links to government. Prior to Constantine, becoming a Christian or a church leader could lead to suffering and an early death. The church had no money or buildings. After Constantine, becoming a Christian or a church leader could lead to prosperity and social status. The church eventually had significant buildings and wealth.
On the one hand, the stability and resources provided by Constantine, helped the church consolidate, spread, develop institutions, and facilitate theological debate, writing, and publishing.
On the other hand, the church lost its identification with the marginalised, had to struggle with the corrupting forces of wealth and power, and was no longer purified by persecution. (Note, these were things that were all central to the life and teaching of Jesus).
This era does provide insights into the complexities of the appropriate relationship between the church and governments. Christians should be wary of what they might aspire to.

There is nothing new under the sun.
On the one hand, ancient controversies associated with Gnosticism, Docetism, Marcionism, Donatism, … may seem a long way from today’s issues. On the other hand, the core issues of some of these controversies are not so far away. Given our common humanity and frailty, we do keep repeating mistakes. On the positive side, we can also learn from the wisdom and "best practise" of the past.

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