I love reading history. This post is inspired by a book I read about early Christian history. Early Christian history makes the news every now and then, often when a book (like The Da Vinci Code) tells of conspiracy theories and a real Jesus much different then the biblical one. The real history is fascinating.
There are two common stories told about how the early Christian church settled on the official doctrines that many Christians still recite in creeds today.
1. The “they got it all from the Bible” view – Under this view, in the centuries after Jesus new false teachings continued to arise. These heresies all made the mistake of straying from the truth passed on through the New Testament and the solid line of orthodox (right-believing) churches. Often such heresies led to councils where Christian bishops would study the Bible and, since the Bible teaching was clear, inevitably vote the heresy down. One most devious heresy, Arianism, taught that Jesus was created by God and thus not fully God. This teaching resulted in the Council of Nicea (325 AD) when the majority of bishops voted, in line with scripture, that Arius was wrong and that Jesus was God. Other councils followed from this (Council of Constantinople in 381, Ephesus in 431, Chalcedon in 451) that taken as a whole give us the official understanding of the Bible.
2. The “it was all a power-play” view – According to this view the earliest “heresies” were not heresies, just differing understandings of Jesus’ message. There was not one clear orthodox interpretation for heretics to stray from. Yet what at the beginning may have been amicable divisions soon became harsh, and once the emperor of Rome had converted to Christianity these divisions threatened to tear the empire apart. So the Emperor chose one particular view and in throwing all the weight of the empire behind it, suppressed all other views. So the orthodox position that triumphed at the councils did not triumph because people studied the Bible, it triumphed because of its powerful backers.
The first view is often what is taught in evangelical Christian apologetics. When a question is asked to an evangelical Christian there is an expectation that the Bible will give the answer, since evangelicals believe in sola scriptura (Bible alone). We believe in the Trinity because, like the church leaders at Nicea, we study the Bible and find it there.
The second view is a favorite of skeptics today. Perhaps most famous is the novel The Da Vinci Code where one character asserts that prior to Nicea no one believed Jesus was God (which is not even close to true). So in response to Christians who think the early Christians studied the Bible and all agreed on the doctrine of the Trinity, skeptics argue it was all a power-play.
Well, history is more messy then that. Both of these are wrong, though both have a shred of truth in them.
Philip Jenkins’ book Jesus Wars shows just how messy the history of the debates about Jesus was in the 400s and 500s. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys history. It serves as a nice prequel to Jenkin’s previous book, The Lost History of Christianity. In Jesus Wars, Jenkins documents how the “orthodox” view won out over two other views – Nestorian and Monophysite. His earlier book tells more of the history of these two churches in the East, forgotten by most Christians in the west.
So how did “orthodox” Christianity come about?
Well, a lot of people were studying the holy scriptures. But that was not the only factor. Those who held the “orthodox” view also appealed to the powers that be, to a chanting and violent mobs, and to underhanded tactics that most of us would find sub-Christian. And emperors and queens often did step in, lending support to one or other faction, but that was not decisive. At Nicea in 325 the view that Jesus is God won out but for the next half-century the majority of people, including most emperors, were Arian. Even into the 400s and 500s many of the barbarian tribes that conquered the Roman west were Arian. The other “heresies” that Jenkins talks about had support at times from those in power.
How we got from a small group of Jewish disciples in Jerusalem weeks after Jesus’ death to the magnificent creeds of the 300s and 400s is a fascinating and complex story. Many factors played in. As I’ve studied church history I’ve come to the conclusion that those on the extremes do not have support for their, for lack of a better term, simplistic views – the “orthodox” view came together much too late and through not just pure Bible study to satisfy religious conservatives, but much too quickly, and with too much Biblical argument and in the face of persecution from those in power at times to satisfy religious liberals.
Really, there is a deeper lesson here. The debates going on that Jenkins talks about are (almost) totally irrelevant to most Christians today. Even those trained in theology have trouble parsing the views. Though, for the record, I do think some of these debates were and are important because who we believe Jesus to be motivates the sort of salvation we hold to and action in the world we live out . Yet the divisions that happened weakened the church and helped cause the fall of many churches to Islam in the 600s and 700s. Which leads me to ask:
What things that we argue about today are worth dividing over and which are merely a distraction?
What would it take to lay such issues aside for the greater good of Jesus’ mission?