Reasons the Welsh Revival of 1904 faded

Question 143, from Phil, Germany

I was interested to read what you wrote about the Welsh Revival. There seems to be a general reluctance in Christians to get involved with politics and social issues which you mention. Do you think that if those in the revival had been more involved in politics, the First World War could have been avoided. Or were those in the revival so far removed from politics of the day – in class, education and social and financial power – that it would have been impossible?

NB – In this previous freelance theology article, brief references are made to the shortening of the revival by two profound events. These were the First World War, and the rise of Socialism, which took hold in the mining communities of South Wales in particular in the first few decades of the 20th century.

Realistically it is impossible to state one way or the other the effects of the Welsh Revival, had it impacted significantly among the political class. Given that Wales was mostly regarded as a primitive provincial backwater, it’s very unlikely that even had the revival profoundly changed the outlook of those in power in Wales, that the First World War would have been prevented.

It is perhaps simplistic to look at the ‘Great War’ and the rise of Socialist politics as the reasons why the Welsh Revival faltered. Certainly these were key external factors. But there were a number of internal factors to contend with too.

Passover becoming the Lord’s Supper

Question 141, from John, United Kingdom

I was wondering when the churches began to separate the bread and wine out of the context of the Passover Seder, and how the “Bread and wine” became “the Lord’s Supper”. Can you help?

It is generally accepted that the ‘Last Supper’ that Jesus shared with his disciples took place around the time of the Jewish Passover. In the synoptic gospels, the ‘Last Supper’ certainly appears to be during Passover week, but John’s gospel implies it takes place beforehand. In John chapter 13, the Last Supper is set “just before the Passover feast” (verse 1), and the disciples assume Jesus is giving Judas instructions regarding preparations for Passover (verse 29). In addition, none of the gospels mention (more…)

Historical references to Jesus outside the gospels

Question 131, from Geraint, United Kingdom

What historical accounts exist of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, outside of Christian writings?

The simple answer to this question is ‘not many’. In fact, the first definite references to Jesus Christ are made in connection with his followers, and are usually negative.

The Jewish historian Josephus made probably the first recorded reference to Jesus in the book Antiquities of the Jews. In Book 20 of Antiquities, he relates the story of the martyrdom of James, “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ”. From the historical context given by Josephus, it can be deduced that James’ martyrdom took place in about 62AD. (James was the leader of the Jerusalem church after Peter fled following his dramatic exit from prison in Acts chapter 12, verses 1-19. James is the only leader of the Jerusalem church named in Acts chapter 21, verse 18.)

There has been some dispute over whether the phrase ‘who was called Christ’ was added into Josephus’ work at a later date. It certainly seems odd that a Jewish historian would use the Greek word for Messiah. It may be a simple factual reference to some people hailing Jesus as the Christ/Messiah, or it could have a slightly deeper meaning.

Josephus had ‘swapped sides’ at some point before he wrote this, having been captured by the Romans, and now saw himself as a Roman. It may be that his reference to Jesus as a messiah, indicates his own loss of faith in the Jewish idea of a coming saviour. Josephus may be referring to Jesus as the Christ/Messiah to indicate that the hope for a messiah had been fulfilled, but had, in his opinion, failed.

Film references to Jesus’ ‘descent into hell’

Question 113, from MC

In the movie “Jesus of Nazareth” which aired in 1977, there are two scenes where it seems to quote the Bible but I cannot find it anywhere. Do you know where this comes from?

“I went down unto the countries, to the countries buried beneath the earth, walked among the people of the past and I was lost, yet I heard your voice and you lifted me from the pit” (paraphrased)

The film ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ attempts to tell the story of Jesus’ life by harmonising the four gospels, which naturally results in certain events being missed out and other material being added in.

Certainly, it would seem that this is a deliberate reference to the doctrine of Christ’s descent into hell. This is the idea that between his death and resurrection Christ’s spirit entered Hades/hell and liberated the captive souls of the righteous. Although popular enough to be included in several creeds, there is a limited Scriptural basis for this belief. (more…)

More questions about The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

Yet again The Da Vinci Code is the focus of some questions for freelance theology.

Question 108 from TLJ, United Kingdom
Is the Christian response to the Da Vinci Code actually detrimental in that it’s giving extra publicity to it?

Question 109, from JG, United Kingdom
In The Da Vinci Code the author says that Jesus married Mary Magdalene. My question is not did he marry, but if he had, would it theologically have affected our salvation. I was wondering what you think about this question. My church is up in arms about this. Please help.

Whatever one’s views on The Da Vinci Code, it seems as if the controversy around it will not die down, despite the poor critical reception for the film version released this summer. Further controversy has been stirred by the court case in which the author, Dan Brown, was accused of plagiarising a number of ideas (Brown was later acquitted).

Opinion within Christian circles seems to be mixed. There are those who dismiss the whole controversy as irrelevant, others who regard it as a positive sign of ‘spiritual hunger’, and still others who condemn it outright as ‘blasphemous’. Previous articles on freelance theology have highlighted (more…)

Why artists use a halo to depict saints and angels

Question from MP, United Kingdom

Where did the idea of a halo come from?

The idea that holy figures in Christianity be depicted with a halo (or, more accurately a nimbus) is a direct borrowing from late Roman and Hellenistic art. The ‘disc’ of the sun was frequently used to indicate divinity, initially with the various sun gods, but soon with almost every deity in the pantheon. Roman emperors were usually depicted with the nimbus since the time of Aurelius (AD270-275), indicating their status as divine ‘sons of God’.

Constantine, prior to his conversion to Christianity, was depicted with the nimbus and the title Sol Invictus (‘invincible sun’), but dropped both the title and the artistic portrayal after establishing Christianity as the official Imperial religion. Around this time the symbology of sun-worship started to be applied to Jesus Christ. Carsten Peter Thiede goes as far as to say: “One connection between Christ and the sun still visible today is the fact that his resurrection is not celebrated on the Sabbath, but on Sun-day, the Dies Solis.” [Heritage of the First Christians, Lion, 1992, p.127] It was then a short step to apply the solar disc to other principal Christian saints.

A number of varieties of nimbus (halo) exist in Christian art, including triangular ones representative of the Trinity, square ones for ‘living’ saints (who were alive when the picture was drawn) and, in the case of Mary, it is common to find her halo full of stars, symbolising her status as the ‘Queen of Heaven’.

 The contemporary cultural depiction of the halo as a sort of hovering frisbee above the heads of dead people in heaven or angels, is therefore a continuation of Greco-Roman Pagan art dating back thousands of years. As with those original artists, the halo is an easy illustrator’s short cut to set the scene or characterise a person as good, although perhaps not quite divine.

The impact of The Da Vinci Code

Question from KR, India

Hello, I came across your site and I found it very useful. But, I couldn’t find one answer, I searched all over the internet but didn’t find any luck. Could you please tell me how the Da Vinci Code affected/influenced Western thought? I hope you can help me.

There is already an item on freelance theology about The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. In terms of this question, the book has had very little impact on Western academic thought because it is a poorly researched detective novel that repackages some old, unproven and historically dubious ideas as part of its storyline.

The Da Vinci Code has of course proved very popular in terms of book sales and, with a film dramatisation being released next year, that popularity is probably set to continue. However, while it has sparked interest in the history of Christianity, a cursory glance at the contemporary features of the book indicates that this is a work of fiction. For example, the Catholic organisation Opus Dei, cast as villains in the novel, do not have monks, and the real Westminster Abbey does not have metal detectors at the doors.

Given the lack of contemporary accuracy, it is telling that the author shies away from questions about the accuracy of his research. Despite an assertion of truth on the introductory page, most of the ‘revelations’ concerning Jesus and Mary Magdalene are old ideas borrowed straight from a book published in 1982 called The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. The authors of that book are now reportedly suing Brown for borrowing their ‘research’ without asking permission.

Incidentally, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail was dismissed as fringe nonsense back in the 1980s. Other parts of The Da Vinci Code, including the description of the discussions at the Council of Nicea and the assertion that the Emperor Constantine rewrote the Bible to ‘prove’ Jesus was divine are laughable in the extreme and betray a complete lack of historical knowledge.

The success of The Da Vinci Code is undoubtedly because it challenges conventional religious norms and established religion. As such, its popularity is telling, revealing that despite centuries of scholarship the sensational and novel (i.e. new) grabs the imagination of people, who are willing to accept fiction as fact for no other reason than that they want to.

Thanks for your question, KR.

Church History (part 3 of 3)

Christianity in the Modern Era

Looking at the fractured nature of Christianity these days, it can be hard to see where all these different strands have come from. On the one hand, Christianity is a developmental religion, with doctrine constantly being updated and made relevant to whatever the issues of the day are. As such it has a reforming streak to it, but whenever there is a reform, there is a backlash against it. The tension between conservatism preserving the historical faith as handed down through generations and radicalism seeking to reinterpret the faith to make it fit has been characterised as a tension between ‘order’ and ‘prophecy’. Established authority and yesterday’s truth are challenged by new ideas and tomorrow’s concerns – creating tension today.

The Enlightenment reforms Christianity from outside
There were reformers before Luther, but the 95 Theses provides a handy starting-point for the Reformation as a period in history. No such one-off event can be targeted for the Enlightenment. Broadly put this was a movement that is often called the Age of Reason and which became the dominant force in Western cultural thinking in the eighteenth century. Many of the great thinkers of the Modern Era are Enlightenment scholars – Leibniz, Kant, David Hume, Voltaire, Hegel, Isaac Newton and the like. The Enlightenment is a retrospective term given to this movement – like many such groupings it’s easy to think of the Enlightenment as some sort of club or group. For the main these thinkers acted alone, shaping society along the same general lines.

The principle aim of ‘enlightened’ thinkers was the subjugation of all truth-claims to human reason. The evolution of the scientific method and the growth in technology implied that everything could be understood by reasoned inquiry. It was no longer acceptable to resort to mystery – there had to be a reason behind events and that reason had to be discernible. There was a reaction to this mechanistic view of the universe. The Romantic movement of the nineteenth century, as typified by various popular poets, was an attempt to reclaim the mysterious and supernatural. Unfortunately the main proponents of the Romantic world-view were the original moral relativists and, in many ways, were regarded as subversive themselves due to their lax morality. Christianity was faced with a choice – rationalism or an ‘abandonment of decency’ and for the main opted for rationalism over romanticism.

The Enlightenment was the first major societal philosophy to impact Christianity since the Arian controversy tried to impose Greek philosophy on Christian theology and it had a profound effect. Anything that could not be rationally explained was often discounted. Doubts were cast over the miracle stories in the gospels, the sacraments of the church and principal doctrines like Hell. Many Enlightenment philosophers regarded Christianity as belonging to a bygone superstitious age and of little use in the rapidly changing society that was moving from a land-locked agricultural economy towards urban industrialisation. However, it took many decades (even centuries) for rationalist philosophy to filter down from the academic and scholarly classes into the general mindset of society and in the meantime there were numerous developments within Christianity.

John Wesley (1703-91)
Known mainly for being the founder of the Methodist church (although Methodism only separated from within the Church of England after his death), John Wesley was one of the first people to recognise the need to preach the gospel within Christendom. Wesley’s desire to see inhabitants of a ‘Christian country’ genuinely saved is a vital distinction that has had a lasting effect certainly on British evangelicalism and other non-conformist branches of the Church.

In his youth John Wesley belonged to a small group known as the ‘holy club’ along with his brother and another noted evangelist of the time, George Whitefield. This group came to be known as ‘Methodists’ and there are many hypotheses about why. The most common theory is that they followed a particular method of Bible study or prayer or some such. Like many names for groups in history the origins are obscure, but the name has stuck.

Wesley was an impassioned open-air preacher following his own ‘conversion experience’ and travelled throughout the UK and to North America, where he effectively founded a new church outside of the Anglican Communion by appointing two bishops. It was only later in the UK, after Wesley’s death, that the Methodists became independent, although they retained virtually all the theological views of the Church of England. Wesley himself only criticised the Anglican church on the basis that it was neglecting some Scriptural truths, such as justification by faith, which in his view needed restoring to their proper place. Wesley thus headed a ‘renewal’ movement, not a reforming movement as such.

John Wesley’s brother Charles wrote over 7000 hymns, including ‘Love Divine, all Love’s Excelling’, and, like John, never left the Anglican communion. Charles’ hymns were deliberate attempts to render theological truth in accessible ways. The Methodists were not the first people to do this, but the popularity of Methodism due to their hymns have resulted ever since in new movements within Christianity emulating them and writing their own hymns as a way of getting their message across.

Revivalism; Jonathan Edwards, Azusa Street, Wales 1904
Among the many popular movements in Christianity, those associated with the Holy Spirit and direct experience of God (as opposed to encounters mediated through the established church authorities) have always been contentious. Even ten years ago, the division within the charismatic stream over the ‘Toronto Blessing’ was as much an issue of established order being challenged by something that seemed new and different. Revivalism, and the idea that the Spirit moves occasionally in a society-changing way, has taken a large role in non-conformist theology, helped on its way by the New England Revival known as the Great Awakening in the eighteenth century and then the two big revivals of the first decade on the twentieth century – in Asuza Street, Los Angeles in 1905 and in Wales the year before. The Asuza Street revival gave rise to the Pentecostal Church, named after the events when the Holy Spirit was first given to the disciples on the day of Pentecost in Acts chapter two. There are now millions of Pentecostals worldwide. The Welsh revival of 1904 stimulated growth in non-conformist denominations, revitalising many ‘chapels’ that had been founded in an earlier revival during the 1860s.

These spiritual movements tended to emphasise personal experience and, above all personal conversion – a central part of John Wesley’s earlier theology. As popular movements, generally attracting members of the working classes, they were held in little regard by academics and theologians. Many of the phenomena recorded during the Great Awakening by Jonathan Edwards, or by contemporary newspaper reports in 1904 were, of course, contradictory to a rationalist mindset. Many of these supernatural events could not be empirically verified and were therefore dismissed. Revivalism was seen as an attraction for the illiterate and the uneducated.

As a brief aside, it’s worth noting that the spiritual element of the revival movement, with its associated phenomena, seemed to fade away quite quickly in Wales. This is perhaps due to a number of historical reasons. Firstly a generation of believing young men was decimated by the carnage of the First World War. Secondly, the activists speaking out about the terrible working conditions found in the mining and steel industries were socialists, not Christians. The working class who had been so attracted to a spiritual movement that promised them something more felt disappointed – Christian faith had not met their immediate needs and they looked elsewhere. Thirdly, there was a growth of intellectualism, studious scrutiny of the Bible and theology, which effectively cut out those with limited education. Within twenty years a dynamic movement, which attracted a large number of converts from among the working class, had become an institutionalised middle class affair.

19th century mission as a modern endeavour (imperialism)
Christianity meanwhile was spreading beyond Europe and America. In the centuries after the Reformation many of the European nations had established ‘colonies’ across Africa and Asia. The British Empire was one of the largest and as the Empire exerted its considerable influence, large missionary organisations began to grow. Recently there has been much unfair criticism of Christianity for engaging in this ‘cultural imperialism’ and it is unfortunate that in many missionary endeavours, the attempt was made to ‘civilise’, i.e. Westernise, the ‘natives’ as much as to introduce them to Christianity.

In the more robust cultures like Japan, which were able to resist Western Imperialism, Christianity has always been regarded as an unwelcome outside influence. There are very few Japanese Christians as a result. In Africa, where the native tribal cultures were comparatively weak and easy to conquer, Christian mission allied to colonisation was far easier, except in those regions of Northern Africa where Islam had taken hold. In the latter half of the twentieth century, as many former colonies gained independence, there was often a sense of embarrassment at the way native cultures were treated by the colonial powers. Christian missionaries have been regarded as one of the ways African or Asian culture was subjugated. This is a bit unfair and is almost hyper-revisionism. Very often it was Christian missionaries who introduced the first education and healthcare. In India, missionary William Carey is acknowledged as being instrumental in the development of written sub-continental languages due to his translation of the Bible into the vernacular.

However, it must be recognised that the ‘Golden Age of Christian Mission’ was thoroughly modern, in that it was based on the precepts that under-gird what we now refer to as modernism, especially the idea of conquest. There was a tendency to view Christianity, in its ‘scientific’, systematic form, as a natural ‘civilising’ force, being the product of the most advanced human societies on the planet.

Two modernist trends – the growth of liberalism versus fundamentalism
As Protestant Christianity entered the twentieth century, it was already beginning to diverge into two main streams. In many wings of the Protestant Church ‘Enlightened’ philosophy and the scientific modern worldview either held sway as Liberal Christianity or met a reaction – a denial of rationalism and a concern for the rediscovery and promotion of the ‘fundamentals’ of the faith. Fundamentalism is often characterised as being anti-intellectual, and indeed many leading fundamentalists have joyfully mocked academics and theologians as not being able to grasp ‘simple Biblical truth’. Generally though, fundamentalism looked for a return to basics, a renewal of Christianity and a rejection of scientific rationalist theology. Unfortunately, many fundamentalists were unable to disengage from the modern worldview. So, the principal arguments revolved around the burden of proof.

One key battleground was about the Bible. For a long time doubt had been cast as to the historical accuracy of the New Testament, with a distinction being made between the ‘historical Jesus’ and the ‘Christ of faith’. Many New testament scholars recognised that the New testament was a product of the believing church, therefore, they argued, the accounts of Jesus’ life were being retrospectively reviewed by the gospel authors. To put it another way, the early Christians believed Jesus was the Son of God and that must have coloured their writings. These doubts about the historical integrity of the gospels in particular, combined with a rationalist principle, which denied the literal truth of supernatural stories, meant that a new means of interpreting the Bible was called for.

In the early twentieth century a German scholar called Rudolf Bultmann began talking about ‘demythologising’ Scripture. According to Bultmann and other thinkers like him, the real truth of the Bible was not found in a literal understanding, but in what the accounts implied. For example, the account in John’s gospel of the transformation of the water into wine is loaded with symbolic images. The contents of the Jewish water jars that can only provide external cleansing are transformed into wine, representing the good things of the messianic Kingdom. The statement that the best has been kept till last could be read as John’s way of saying that the teaching of Christ has thus surpassed the old Jewish way of doing things.

Many other classic doctrines were demythologised – the resurrection and the end of the world being the prime examples. A common theme in what came to be known as ‘liberal’ theology was the idea that human progress would eventually lead to the establishment of the Kingdom of God here on Earth. This whole progressive scheme was derailed by two world wars – it was hard to see human progress leading to a Heavenly utopia given the slaughter of the Somme or the creation of Auschwitz and the Final Solution.

Fundamentalism grew in the first half of the twentieth century as a reaction to liberalism. In contrast to the progressive view espoused by liberals, it remains quite pessimistic, seeing the world and human society as under judgement and claiming the Biblical witness is that things will just get worse. The fundamentalist position on Scripture is that the Bible is wholly true (inerrant) and should be interpreted literally and universally, divorcing the Bible from the culture in which it was written and seeking to apply it to contemporary culture. So, for example, the instructions in Paul’s epistle to the Corinthian church regarding the role of women are taken to be universally binding and women are excluded from preaching.

The problem with fundamentalism is that it can be viewed as a product and result of modernism. The landmark case that defined fundamentalism as a force took place in the USA, when a number of self-declared fundamentalists took the federal government to court in order to prevent the teaching of evolution in schools and won (later the court ruling was overturned). Those arguments and subsequent creationist theology follow the same vein, namely that the Bible can be proven as scientifically accurate. The discussion takes place purely on the level of literal truth as proven by science, but this is an Enlightenment position taken to the extreme. Truth to the fundamentalists lies in empirical verification and scientific study, not to experienced religious reality. In many ways, fundamentalism is not an answer to rationalism, but merely a Christian expression of the rationalist worldview.

New streams, charismatic theology
After the Second World War, Christianity faced the challenge of adapting to massive social change. Now we recognise that change as the culture entering the post-modern era, moving beyond scientific rationalism and authoritarian structures, if not quite dispensing with extreme individualism. In the 1970s the Roman Catholic church modernised it’s practices at the second church council to be held in the Vatican (often referred to as Vatican II). In the 1990s, the Anglican church changed the long-standing tradition of a male-only priesthood and ordained women to ministry. Along the way, a new movement that worked in and around these established churches and was labelled the Charismatic Renewal affected both the world’s largest denominations.

The ‘charismatics’ first started to appear on the fringes of church life in the early 1960s, in radical communities like the Jesus Army. Often associated with revivalist church groups like the Pentecostals, and generally hailing from the evangelical wing of the Church, within forty years this disorganised and decentralised popular movement has become one of the most significant aspects of Christianity, affecting the whole Church. So, there are charismatic Catholics, Anglicans, Baptists and whole new church streams formed as well, of which the Vineyard are probably the most well known internationally (particularly after the events of the early 1990s that came to be known as the ‘Toronto Blessing’).

In many respects, the growth of charismatic, experiential theology has tied in with the gradual (and ongoing) transformation of the culture from Modernity to what is temporarily called Post-Modernity. With an emphasis on simplicity, mysticism, prayer, contemplation, worship and spiritual disciplines like fasting, the charismatic version of Christianity has proved very attractive to members of the post-modern culture. This has caused a backlash from ‘Modern’ Christians, who accuse it of lacking theological depth. One example of this would be the criticism levelled at the Alpha Course outreach model for teaching a diluted version of Christianity. But the Age of Reason is passing and it would seem that post-modern humans are less willing to be convinced through intellectual argument at all. There is a holistic element to post-modernity, which requires more than systematic theology, however correct, has to offer.

Naturally there have been some excesses. The huge growth in demonology and ‘spiritual warfare’ is a return to good old-fashioned superstition. The actions of the ‘Kansas City Prophets’ in the 1980s, which bordered on apocalyptic warnings of the imminent end and the rising of a new breed of Christian hero, undermined the credibility of the charismatic movement, and the excitement caused by the ‘Toronto Blessing’ was matched only by the disappointment when worldwide revival did not break out. But these errors of judgement aside, the development of charismatic Christianity alongside the societal moves away from Modernity point to the continuing relevance of the Christian message in a world that is leaving Christendom behind.

Why study Church History?
It may seem odd to leave this to the very end, but it’s my hope that this introduction, which could only ever be very lightweight and selective in it’s coverage, will inspire you to ask those important questions: Who are we? How did we get here? What’s happening next?

Christians are blessed by having two thousand years of history. The issues faced by Christians today regarding prevalent cultural philosophies are issues faced and resolved by our fathers in the faith. Most importantly, by knowing what has gone before, there is the hope that mistakes will be avoided, that a common way can be forged between preserving what is eternal in the faith, while finding new ways to express it in the here-and-now. Church History is, put simply, the record of how Christians have sometimes got it right and sometimes got it wrong. In judging how well we are doing, it helps to know what has gone before.

Church History Part 2 (of 3)

The fourth strand of Church history is the reforming strand – this is a complicated theme to follow, because in one sense all reforms are something new, even if they are the rediscovery of something old. It is perhaps a bit post-modern to say that all reforms result in new theology, but the Reformation opened up many new worlds.

The Reformation period
The Reformation is a name given to a small window in Christian history that relates to a major movement away from centralised authority towards an egalitarian ideal that all Christians are priests and saints. Generally the Reformation is identified as occurring during the sixteenth century, starting with the protest of the monk and scholar Martin Luther against church practices, and quickly becoming a socio-political force to be reckoned with. As such it not only changed Christianity, but also laid the grounds for modern Europe and the scientific revolution known as the Enlightenment.

Before the Reformation: crusades, monasteries and the Pope
A common, and often fairly accurate, criticism of evangelical Christians is that their church history runs something like this: St Paul dies, Council of Nicea, Augustine v Pelagius, Martin Luther nails the 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg! This is fairly natural, but a large amount of ‘protestant’ thought developed long before Luther. The concepts of paid clergy, for example, or sacred buildings, or (for Anglicans) the parish church system.

There were a number of major developments in Christian history between the fourth century (where we left off) and the Reformation. In brief these included: a huge debate between St Augustine and another theologian called Pelagius that centred on whether human beings were capable of doing good deeds on their own. Augustine’s concept of original sin negating the possibility of human beings ever doing anything good without God’s grace to aid them had a huge impact on the chief theologians of the Reformation.

Augustine also contributed the ‘just war’ theory to Christian doctrine. Kings throughout Europe used this doctrine as Christianity’s spiritual authority became inseparable from temporal, political power. On Christmas Day in AD800, Charlemagne, King of the Franks, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor. This had a dual effect. Firstly, Charlemagne used Christianity as a means of subjugating the Saxons and obviously furthered the spread of Christianity at the same time. Secondly, it was viewed as the restoration of the Roman Empire with Charlemagne as the spiritual successor to Constantine, thus giving him ecclesiastical authority as the ‘protector’ of the church. It also effectively gave the bishop of Rome, the Pope, a key ally in interesting political times.

The effect of the partnership between Pope and Holy Roman Emperor was the idea of absolute authority. The HRE supposedly had absolute authority in matters of state – every other king in Christendom was theoretically bound to him (although it wasn’t always easy getting those kings to recognise that!) Similarly, the position of Pope had evolved rapidly, drawing on documents that purported to convey Constantine’s authority to the successors of the Bishop of Rome and also the claim of direct apostolic succession from Peter, the ‘rock’ on whom Christ would build his church (cf Matthew chapter 16, verse 18). The Constantinian documents were proven false during the Reformation and the apostolic succession argument has been hotly contested, but nevertheless, all true Christians in Western Europe were expected to look to the Pope for spiritual guidance. NB: Although it was floating as an idea in the fourteenth century, it was only much later, in 1870, that the doctrine of papal infallibility when speaking ex cathedra or in a church council was formally recognised by the Roman Church.

Tied in with the growth of papal authority and the establishment of the HRE, are the biggest events of medieval Christianity: the Crusades. Initiated by various Popes and Emperors, the expressed intent of the Crusades was the liberation of Palestine and the holy sites of Christianity from Islamic occupation. In reality, they were a series of wars, as much against eastern Christians as against Muslims. The fourth crusade, in particular, ended with the sack of Constantinople/Byzantium in 1204, during which time a number of Christian relics were transported back to Western Europe. The antipathy of the Eastern Orthodox church towards Western European Christians (and Christians elsewhere who hail from European tradition) stems from this as much as anything. The very real hurt felt by Orthodox Christians is equal to the tension between Islam and Christianity regarding the actions of the crusader armies, although in truth the ongoing war between the Moorish and Christian kingdoms in Spain, the Islamic conquest of Christian North Africa and the occupation of Palestine in the first place, with its destruction of several Christian holy sites and churches, reduce the impact of the crusades to just another episode in a bitter and bloody history between the two religions.

A final development to bear in mind was the growth of the monastic orders. Monasteries were also hospitals, schools and churches for the ordinary common man. Monks were respected as scholars and priests and in many places performed a dual role as civil scribes for the local rulers and priestly functions. Monasteries, as repositories of learned men and guardians of knowledge were therefore rich and powerful – they received offerings for their spiritual work and payment for their scribal work. They were usually self-sufficient, with low overheads (the life of a monk wasn’t meant to be easy after all!). At least that was the theory. Many abbots lived at an aristocratic level, with the resources to host lavish banquets and entertain high status guests. Many high-ranking individuals honoured monastic houses with large bequests, in order to earn an ‘indulgence’, a special allowance to get out of purgatory (a place of punishment that purged you of your sins before you entered heaven) that could only be awarded by the Pope (monasteries often bought these to sell on), or to ensure that the monks prayed for the benefactor’s soul after death. Through bequests, monasteries became land-owners. In an era where nearly everybody lived off the land, this was another source of prestige and power.

Most importantly, there were movements between monasteries and many monks made pilgrimages to Rome. It was therefore very easy for the church authorities to keep tabs on what was happening in the courts of Europe, because often a monk would be the person writing the king’s edicts for him and, incidentally, hearing all the gossip of the court. Monasteries acted as a vital part of the Pope’s intelligence-gathering network

Luther’s protest
In 1516, Martin Luther (1483-1546) was a largely-unknown monk and professor of Scripture at the university of Wittenberg. In 1517, he attached a protest – the 95 statements (or theses) against the sale of indulgences – to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. The intention was to debate whether indulgences could really save a Christian soul from purgatory. To use the language of the time: were they efficacious of salvation?’ But there were other questions in there too – why was the Pope (who was rich enough already, according to Luther in one of the statements) issuing indulgences?

The 95 theses mark the start of the Reformation for no other reason than after Luther’s protest everything kicked off big-time. There were hundreds of grievances against the Church; there was a rising ‘humanism’ that was beginning to critique Christendom and established medieval theology; nationalism and local aristocrats, particularly in Luther’s Germany, railed against the Holy Roman Empire’s demands. All these huge influences went into the melting pot of central Europe and when the theological objections started to be raised about the power of the papacy and the legitimacy of some church doctrines, Europe was literally on the brink of war.

It is often said that Luther never truly intended a break with Rome. The 95 theses and his initial theological objections were not significantly anti-papal. He was genuinely looking for a reformation, a return to a simpler time, to what he considered true Christianity, based on scripture alone. The phrases that have characterised Luther’s theology are ‘sola scriptura’, scripture alone, and ‘sola fide’, salvation coming through faith alone. His key basis for this was the statement in the book of Hebrews that ‘Abraham was justified by faith’ – not by works, confession, penances, pilgrimages, indulgences, or even observing the sacraments.

However, Luther was fairly naïve. Such a return to first principles would naturally strip many people of their power and rank. Just as turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, people in authority, whether ecclesiastical or not, rarely hand over their power voluntarily. Luther’s proposals were rudely rejected, he was regarded as a threat and a troublemaker and (rightly) feared for his own safety. Like many a spurned individual, he became bitter, and it was then that he became vociferously anti-papal, demonising the position of Pope – a point of view often held in extreme Protestantism today with the bishop of Rome identified with the antichrist.

Under the protection of the various rulers of some of the German states, Luther formed his own church, modelled on the Roman church he broke with. For that reason the Lutheran church model, as found in Germany and Scandinavia tends to operate as a state church. The American Lutheran church can’t because there is no state church.

Luther’s innovations: Luther did away with most of the sacraments like confession. He retained infant baptism because his worldview was essentially catholic – everybody born in a Christian country was naturally a Christian. He adapted the doctrine of transubstantiation to a version of consubstantiation, meaning that the transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ does not occur because of the priests invocation, but through the faith of the participant. He emphasised the importance of Scripture, rejecting doctrines that seemed to have no Scriptural basis (e.g. praying to Mary) and helped disseminate the Bible in German and other languages. The Biblical translation he is associated with was from original Greek and Hebrew sources, not from the Latin Vulgate, so this caused more difficulties with Rome, because the Vulgate is a flawed translation in a few places (e.g. Jesus’ brothers being called his cousins, because the translator believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary).

Luther’s legacy is quite clear. By encouraging independent study of Scripture and down-playing the centralised authority of the church, he laid the foundations for protest and dissent. His protests have been echoed by every other sectarian view in the years since the Reformation. Ironically, Luther himself was frequently frustrated by the number of people who did not agree with his views and he was not beyond using the secular powers-that-be to quash dissent in the area where his ‘true’ version of Christianity was the only church.

John Calvin (1509-64) is the other key thinker, scholar and breakaway church leader involved in the Reformation. After fleeing Paris in 1533, he settled in Geneva where he pioneered a version of Christianity that became known as Reformed theology. Despite originally being kicked out of Geneva, he became established as a dominant figure, with the express intent of making Geneva a holy city (perhaps influenced by Augustine’s book City of God or as a rival to Rome).

Calvin’s Reformed theology spread rapidly throughout Europe, partly due to his Institutes of the Christian Religion, first published while he was on the run in 1536, and then revised five times before his death, with the definitive issue published in 1559. The Institutes was not the first systematic theology published, but it was the first to benefit from the invention of the printing press and be disseminated widely. It was also highly contentious, containing as it did a full exploration and absolute affirmation of the doctrine that most people associate with Calvin’s name: predestination. Calvin takes the concept to its logical limit in the Institutes, realising that if you believe that God predestines certain people to Heaven, then He must also have predestined certain people to Hell, because He has not chosen them for salvation.

Calvin’s double-predestination is a huge jump in doctrine. As a concept it is occasionally raised before Calvin introduced it, but it became the underlying theme of Calvin’s work. His Biblical commentaries are riddled with references to it. Most of his sermons refer to it in some way. Of course, Calvin’s preoccupation with predestination is partly because it was the main part of his theology that came under attack. Put simply, people hated it and found it abhorrent. Calvin was forced to defend it so often, he automatically ended up defending it every time he spoke or wrote.

But Calvin’s predestination stems from an interesting source. He was obviously not raised a protestant, and he gave up a potentially well-heeled life as a scholar and lawyer when he converted. He regarded his conversion as a response to hearing the true gospel preached. What he could not understand was why anybody would fail to respond to that gospel. Who could resist the gracious offer of salvation? Which man was strong enough to resist God? Calvin was unable to imagine that anybody could resist the transforming power of the gospel, therefore, he concluded, the decision as to who will respond must rest with God. Faith is therefore a gift (and it is listed as one in 1 Corinthians) and if anyone ‘refuses’ the gospel it must be because God has already decided that they will do so.

Calvin’s legacy is the whole debate about predestination, but also another major facet of protestant thought. The issue of predestination revolves around the choice made by the individual – salvation thus becomes the salvation of the individual. In Calvin’s scheme, being born in a Christian country, baptised into the Christian community as a baby and attending church are not enough. There has to be an individual response too. This is the root of the modern-day obsession with converting people and getting them to pray the sinner’s prayer or commit their lives to God (or whatever form of words are used). Calvin viewed the church in Geneva as being a mix of the righteous ‘elect’ and damned sinners, ‘wheat and tares’, with a great sort-out to come on Judgment Day. Calvin’s enduring legacy has been the idea of Christians within Christendom and a separation of true believers from Christians in name only – ‘nominal’, cultural churchgoers.

The Anabaptists and ‘radical reformers’
The vast majority of modern day ‘protestants’ would find their theology vastly differed from that of Luther or his circle, and even through many churches follow Calvin’s Reformed pattern, this has developed considerably. Many Christians today belong to Christian traditions that have their roots in a loose collection of new movements that flourished during the Reformation. Often this grouping is referred to as the Radical Reformation and it included Anabaptists, ‘Mennonites’ (after an early Anabaptist leader called Menno Simons), groups that would become the Brethren, the Quakers and the like. It also included new sects that revived old heresies, e.g. the Unitarians who denied the divinity of Christ.

Not all the radicals were motivated by theology; there was a political element as well, bordering on proto-Communism in some cases. The Anabaptists, or ‘re-baptisers’, so-called because they stressed the need for adults to be baptised regardless of whether they had previously been christened, were noted for their ‘enthusiasm’ – a general term covering prophecy and spiritual gifts. Unfortunately, many ‘prophecies’ were about the overthrow of the established political order. In 1534 one such prophecy was enacted upon in Munster, Germany, which was renamed ‘New Zion’ and those who refused to be rebaptised were driven out of the city.

New Zion enacted communal property laws and introduced Old Testament laws and practices, including polygamy, as they sought to create Heaven on Earth. Similar things happened across Europe, with Anabaptists sometimes forming armed compounds not unlike the situation in Waco, Texas a decade ago. Generally there was a belief in the imminent end of the Godless status quo and an exclusivism bordering on the cultic. Men and women from the radical communities were regarded as subversive threats, for two reasons. Firstly, by not baptising their own children in a culture where everybody was baptised, they were regarded as traitors to the Christian country they lived in. Secondly, the emphasis on communal property was regarded with suspicion by the ruling authorities. Both Roman Catholic and Protestant authorities executed Anabaptists, often through drowning. As ever in the history of Christianity, such martyrdoms generated more interest in the cause and radicalism spread even as it was being driven underground.

For all its faults, however, the Radical Reformation has had a profound effect on subsequent Christianity, mainly through the introduction of adult baptism. This is now the norm in many protestant churches and even churches that concentrate on infant baptism often make provisions for adult baptism too. The vast majority of radical sects have been reintegrated into the ecumenical community, e.g. the Mennonites. Radical groups formed a key part of the settlement of North America as they left Europe looking for their own land where they would be free to worship without fear of Persecution.

Henry’s love life and The English Reformation
In contrast to the Reformation on the continent, the establishment of the English church by Henry VIII under the rule of the King is often regarded as being politically motivated. The bare facts have passed into legend – Henry wanted a son, was unable to have one with his wife Catherine of Aragon and was angry that the Pope refused to annul his marriage. To get his divorce, Henry capitalised on the new independence movements, taking the lead from dissenting voices in his own country to engineer a break with Rome and the establishment of what is still the official Church of England. The role of the monarch in the Anglican Church that was thus established by Henry has recently come back into focus given Prince Charles’ plan to marry Camilla Parker Bowles.

It would be far too simplistic to regard Henry’s divorce as the sole reason England went independent. For a start, new worlds were literally opening up and there was a sense that now would be a good time for England to break free from the shackles that bound it to Europe. There was also a major move among the churchmen of England towards the reforms happening on the continent. Henry was savvy enough to realise that what was happening on the continent would travel across the English Channel. In many ways the top-down reformation he enacted pre-empted the popular moves that caused so much trouble in Northern Europe.

One of the most notable aspects of Henry’s decision was the dissolution of the monasteries. Even today the ruins of these magnificent church buildings lie scattered across the English and Welsh countryside. There were a number of reasons why Henry moved against the monastic houses. Contrary to popular belief, there was little financial gain for him in most cases, although of course the crown gained quite a bit of land, which could be doled out to keep the local aristocrats loyal. The monasteries belonged to international orders, and, as mentioned above, their first loyalty was to the Pope. Closing the monasteries also ensured that people had to attend the parish churches – it meant that there was no choice in the matter.

In general, while the liturgy of the church now took place in English rather than Latin, the Anglican church kept much of the old traditions and practices of the Roman church, including infant baptism. Later, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the 39 Articles became the standard of orthodoxy for Anglican priests. The 39 Articles were generally Reformed (i.e. Calvinist) in doctrine and asserted many classic statements including justification by faith. They also deliberately discounted many doctrines that were considered the most papist, for example purgatory. The Anglican church is a very interesting church, because right from the beginning it tried to find a middle ground, so that those who were more traditional in outlook could still accept the new church, while those pushing for reformation theology were also kept happy.

Not everybody was happy with the mix of old and new and within a few hundred years non-Conformist churches, puritans, Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Quakers and the like had established networks of independent chapels. These groups were often excluded from holding high office or taking certain jobs and many non-conformist families (i.e. they did not conform to the normative state church) were at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution, mainly because, despite being highly intelligent men, they were forbidden from teaching or working in the civil service.

The New World
The Reformation in Europe coincided with the first outbreak of European Imperialism. Generally the ‘Catholic’ countries who still looked to the Pope began to conquer what is now called Latin America. Led principally by Spanish expansionism, the Roman Church’s missionary orders like the Jesuits began converting (sometimes forceably) local populations. This continued for a couple of centuries, even as far North as California – many of the principal cities were founded as ‘missions’ named after saints (which is why they all start ‘San’). These missions were a base for priests and missionaries and also military units designed to protect the newly-claimed territory.

In contrast, Northern Europeans generally settled in North America. Jamestown and Charleston were named after English Kings and many principle port-towns were named after places in the home country: Plymouth Rock where the Mayflower landed, New York (formally New Amsterdam) and Boston. Many groups fleeing persecution in Europe made their way to the New World, often hoping to establish a new way of life based on their true understanding of Christianity. One notable example is the state of Pennsylvania, founded by Quakers who had been driven out of Britain.

The dawn of the modern era
The Reformation was not just a Christian theological movement, it had profound political and social effects. Theology justified the Puritan war against the monarch during the English Civil War. Breaks with Rome saw the fracturing of the Holy Roman Empire into hundreds of smaller states. There were reforms in what was left of the Roman Church as well through the Council of Trent, but the divisions between ‘Roman Catholics’ and Protestants had become too entrenched for any reconciliation.

But the Reformation also ushered in the Modern era, as defined now by societal scholars. The printing press was the invention that revolutionised the spread of ideas, not just theological tracts, but scientific discoveries too. The age-old acquiescence to the Pope was gone, leaving many new-thinking individuals free to explore avenues of scientific enquiry. The authority of the church had been questioned and in many places absolute authority now rested with human government. The divine right of Kings was criticised, most notably in Britain and France where regicide was the eventual outcome. [Republicanism didn’t stick in Britain.]

The Reformation saw the dawn of modern European Imperialism – the beginning of the age of conquest. At the same time within Christianity and mirrored outside was a growth in individualism – it was the individual who was saved and it became the right and duty of individuals to interpret Scripture themselves.

All the hallmarks of modernity – including conquest, scientific enquiry, technological answers and development, and individualism are found in proto-form in the Reformation. What began with Martin Luther questioning papal fund-raising through the sale of indulgences continues to have ramifications for Christians today as the culture we live in has been shaped by the movement started by the monk from Wittenberg.

Church History Part 1 (of 3)

Jon the freelance theologian was recently invited to distill 2000 years of Church History into 3 hours with the participants of the Form course in Bristol Vineyard. What follows is the first of three essays written for Form. The caveat for the reader is that such a venture is naturally selective and may prompt further questions!

Introductory Remarks

It is important for any modern-day historian to realise first and foremost that he or she is living in the ‘modern’ era. Our concept of what history is differs from classical historians, so recapturing the ‘story’ involves the recognition that the storytellers are from another, quite alien, yet disturbingly similar, culture. On another level, understanding what has happened in the two thousand years since the earthly ministry of Christ includes several strands of history.

There is strand 1: straight history – what happened, who was involved and how it affected whatever happened next.
Strand 2 runs deeper: the historical development of Christian doctrine. Christian history is intertwined with doctrinal development – the ‘what, who, how’ are as much about orthodox beliefs, creeds, doctrines and theology. Without wanting to go off onto a tangent, it is nearly impossible for us, with our developed theologies, to practice ‘New Testament Christianity’, mainly because we have a New Testament, whereas the ‘New Testament Christians’ did not.
Strand 3 is the cultural element. Christianity has, since the fourth century been bound up with political, social and cultural mores. This has given Western Europe both the absolute monarchy ‘divine right of Kings’ and also democracy based on the equality of men before God. Christians of every age have been shaped by and, in turn, shaped the society they are in. Church history and, especially European development are inextricably linked.
A fourth strand that could be identified is a reforming strand. This is paradoxically both a conservative and a progressive movement within Christianity, wanting to return to basics in order to forge a new future. The reforming strand of church history is often overlooked.

This introduction is going to cover small amounts from each strand. In part one, we’ll look at the development of Christianity from a Jewish sub-sect through to the highly complicated creedal faith that was the official religion of the Roman Empire. In part two, we’ll look at the Reformation, which breached Christendom and changed Christian doctrine and Western culture forever. In part three we’ll look at some of the developments in the modern era and the pressures that have transformed the faith from outside. This is very much a brief introduction, designed to whet your appetite for church history. Hopefully it will leave you wanting to know more.

The early development of Christianity

Christianity spreads

The account of Christian origins we are most familiar with is the Book of Acts. Combined with other semi-autobiographical information, for example in Paul’s letters or the opening verses of Revelation, we can build up a picture of how Christianity started to spread through the Roman Empire.

The common theory is that Christianity piggy-backed the spread of Judaism. In the centuries immediately before Jesus, Jewish communities had started building synagogues in major cities throughout the Roman Empire, including Rome itself, Alexandria in Egypt and Antioch in modern-day Turkey. Many of these Jews spoke Greek, which was the common language of the Eastern half of the Roman Empire. The Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament) had been translated into Greek in the third century BC. In popular tradition, seventy-two Jewish elders did the translating in seventy-two days. Hence, the finished translation was called the Septuagint. (Seventy-two was an important number in Jewish folklore as it is a multiple of twelve and there are twelve tribes).

The earliest Christians were Jews, and would have been trilingual, speaking Aramaic (the language of Palestine), speaking and writing Greek and knowing at least enough Hebrew to understand the rituals in the Temple and the synagogues. As Christianity spread, with its outward-looking focus towards the gentiles, Greek became the common language of the early church. The New Testament is written in ‘koine’ Greek, the everyday commoners language used in the marketplace, the pubs and among the general populace.

It would be worth pointing out here that, contrary to popular belief, Jesus was not a semi-illiterate carpenter from some rural backwater. The Greek word ‘tekton’ that we translate as ‘carpenter’ means ‘architect’ or ‘master craftsman’. Nazareth, the town where Jesus grew up, was a few miles from a large city that was being rebuilt by the Roman authorities called Sepphoris – a place big enough to have its own theatre – and the rebuilding would have employed master craftsmen from all over the region. Nazareth was also close to the ‘Via Maris’, the ‘road to the sea’, along which huge trading caravans travelled. The spice routes led from the Palestinian coast to Arabia, India, the Caucasus and many other foreign and exotic lands. Jesus would have been educated in the synagogue school, able to read Hebrew and Greek and perfectly able to converse with high ranking priests, Romans or other Greek-speaking foreigners (the Romans would probably have been conscripted from Greek-speaking territories and would be bilingual in Latin and Greek anyway).

Jesus’ followers were hardly the ignorant fishermen they are often portrayed as. In fact, as boat-owning, self-employed businessmen, who may even have had offices in Jerusalem, the first disciples were more middle class than is often recognised. These followers of Jesus were joined by clerks, doctors, lawyers, political activists, educated Pharisees, merchants and the like. The Roman Empire, with its ‘pax romana’, excellent road system, safe sea-lanes and network of synagogues were all conducive to the message of Jesus spreading, first within the scattered Jewish communities and then, as Christians grew more bolder (and the Jewish community leaders grew more hostile) directly to ordinary citizens of the Empire and even beyond.

Persecution and martyrdom

It wasn’t all easy going. The dominant religion in the Roman Empire was worship of the Emperor. The beginning of the Gospel of Mark, introduces Jesus as the son of God in the very first sentence. This was a loaded phrase – ‘uiou theou’ – more commonly used in the Imperial cult of the current living Emperor, whoever that might be. A common idea was that the Emperor ascended to divine status when he died, so his son taking over the throne must be the son of a god! Other titles of Christ were in similar use – ‘kyrios kai sote’ (lord and saviour), being the most common one.

The danger then for Christians was twofold. On the one hand, the superstition of the surrounding community would hold Christians accountable if anything went wrong, because they were the ones disrespecting the Gods/Emperor by refusing to worship them. The second strand was political – withdrawing from public Emperor worship was tantamount to treason.

The first major persecution of Christians where Christians were singled out by the authorities, instead of being the victims of mob violence was under the Emperor Nero in AD64. This followed a fire that devastated the city of Rome, which Nero blamed on the Christians. Even Roman commentators like Tacitus thought the fire was suspicious – Tacitus stopped short of accusing Nero of ordering arson, but noted a ‘sinister belief’ that pointed the finger at the Emperor. The Christians were blamed, according to Tacitus, to divert that accusation.

Without going into too much detail, the martyrs in the Neronian persecution suffered horrible deaths, including being lit as human torches in the gardens of the Imperial palace and being torn apart by wild dogs in the circus. It is often thought that Peter and Paul may have been martyred in Rome at about this time, but church traditions aside, there is no clear evidence for this.

Despite being instigated by the Emperor, Nero’s persecution was largely confined to Rome and it lasted a short time. Generally, for the first three hundred years of its existence, the church was left alone, but there were some notable exceptions. The Emperor Domitian persecuted Christians in Rome and Asia (modern day Turkey) at the end of the first century AD. Notable Christians Polycarp and Justin (who became known as Justin Martyr) were executed by the authorities in the 160s, there was major persecution in Gaul (France), motivated by mob violence, in 177, where a number of Christians were given the opportunity to ‘recant’ (i.e. deny the faith). This is the first known situation where the Emperor, at this time Marcus Aurelius (portrayed in the recent Hollywood epic Gladiator), instructed the authorities to free those who were willing to turn back to pagan worship.

Yet, this kind of persecution had the same effect as a tabloid scandal would today. It got the issue of Christianity noticed. The curiosity of many people was piqued – who were these mysterious ‘Christians’? What was it that drove them so willingly to die? Who was this ‘Jesus the Christ’? Hadn’t he been executed too? The rumours led people to find out more and as they did, the church grew in number and influence.

Martyrdom became a popular theme in the Christian community from the middle of the second century. Many of the leading lights in the movement had died for the faith – ten of the original twelve disciples, St Paul, and St James the Just (possibly Jesus’ brother) who led the church in Jerusalem, had all been killed according to church tradition. This idea of the ‘martyr-apostle’, who held to the gospel to the point of death, is of course modelled on Jesus himself. And it was to have a profound impact in North Africa, where one Christian called Tertullian explicitly stated that ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church’.

In 250AD, the Emperor Decius initiated a wide-ranging persecution of Christians. In order to identify the Christians everybody was ordered to sacrifice an animal in a pagan ceremony. Those who did not were tried and executed for being Christians. Although the persecution did not last long – Decius died in 251 – a huge controversy erupted in North Africa over what to do about those who had recanted or engaged in pagan rites under pressure from their neighbours or the authorities.

Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage, had been in hiding during the persecution. When he returned to Carthage, he found the majority of Christians had either bribed an official to receive a certificate to say they had sacrificed or had actually sacrificed to the pagan gods. Cyprian argued that the recanters had denied Christ, were traitors and could not be readmitted to the church. If they had already been baptised – their baptism was null and void and because the church believed in one baptism for the remission of sins, they could not be baptised again and their sin could not be forgiven.

This was in direct contrast with the Bishop of Rome who urged for tolerance and readmission. Cyprian effectively split with Rome on this; his was regarded as authoritative throughout North Africa and he was influential in Spain as well. A half-century later, one his successors, Donatus, would take the fanaticism and no-holds-barred attitude of Cyprian further so that the church in Africa was split between the Donatists and those who still looked to Rome and again the issues would surround the activities of Christians under persecution. In Donatus’ case over who had surrendered their copies of the Holy Scriptures to be burned by the authorities rather than sacrificing in pagan temples, but the principle was the same.

In that sense persecution worked. When Constantine came to power in 313AD and issued his edict that made Christianity the official religion of the Empire, the church was divided. The continuing presence of the Donatists undermined Imperial authority in North Africa. A few centuries later, with the political will of the Empire weakened, Christianity all but died in out in the region, unwilling and unable to unite against a new religion: Islam. Cyprian, who started all this off was himself martyred in AD257.

An authoritative canon of Scripture

There are many myths, not all of them ancient, surrounding the New Testament. Whether it’s Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code, or the popular misconception that the Bible was only written hundreds of years after the events they describe, it is important to recognise that the spread of Christianity goes hand-in-hand with the development of the New Testament.

A recent book called The Cosmopolitan World of Jesus by Carsten Peter Theide argues that the public library system throughout the Roman Empire helped the spread of Christianity. Thiede’s premise is that the early Christian communities wrote the gospels very early on as a missionary endeavour – the idea being to get them placed in libraries for general readers. One key argument in his favour is that Paul makes oblique references to Jesus Christ, which appear to presuppose knowledge on the part of the reader. While there has undoubtedly been some small editorship for the gospels, if Thiede’s theory is right, then what we have in our Bible today are virtually eyewitness accounts (Matthew’s gospel may have been based on Matthew-Levi’s shorthand notes jotted down as the disciples tramped around the countryside).

That’s not to say they are historically accurate in the way we would view history from a modern, scientific standpoint. The gospels tell a story from a particular point of view – it’s the early life of the messiah who came back from the dead. It is highly likely that the resurrection was the first thing, and perhaps was the only thing, that people knew about Jesus. It seems to form the central part of any teaching recorded in the New Testament about Jesus. Unlike modern evangelical theology which emphasises the atoning death of Christ, the first Christians stressed the resurrection as proof that there was a new ‘Way’ – a popular self-descriptive term used in the early church.

Thousands of different manuscripts have been archeologically retrieved from the first few centuries. Sometimes these are mere fragments of the New Testament, sometimes complete collections of e.g. the four gospels or Paul’s letters. The development of the canon of the New Testament, i.e. the fixed order and number of ‘books’ we have today, took some time. There are plenty of reasons for this.

Firstly, regardless of what fringe nutters might tell you, there weren’t a huge number of ‘other gospels’ knocking around in the first couple of centuries. Most of the non-canonical ‘gospels’, ‘acts’ and ‘apocalypses’ were written in the second or third century at the very earliest. Secondly, the early Church already had its Scriptures – what we now call the Old Testament. This was usually the Greek translation called the Septuagint and was regarded as being full of prophetic references to Jesus Christ, particularly in the Psalms and Messianic oracles as found in Isaiah. The idea that the writings of the earliest Christians were inspired by God and authoritative only came in after those said Christians left the scene. Thirdly, there was no real need to define any particular writings as orthodox while Christianity was vaguely homogenous and rooted in Judaism. However, as other influences crept into Christianity, from thinkers who had converted from pagan backgrounds, but had not left their pagan philosophical ideas behind, the heterogeneity of Christianity began to prove problematic. Fourthly, and this was the clincher, people began to ask which of the Christian writings they should read and how they related to the Scriptures (i.e. the Old Testament). Were they on a par? Or were they more important, because after all they were about Christ?

One of the significant people who precipitated the formation of the canon was called Marcion. There is little information about him, but we know he was excommunicated from the church in Rome in about AD144 for teaching that the Old Testament had nothing to do with Christianity. Marcion held a developed Gnostic belief and regarded the Old Testament God ‘Yahweh’ as an evil deity. The true God was revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and had nothing to do with the Jewish scriptures. To that end he produced his own collection of ‘true’ Scripture, which consisted of an edited down version of Luke’s gospel (coincidentally, the least Jewish of the Synoptic gospels) and similarly-edited letters of Paul.

The reaction to Marcion is very helpful to us in understanding the development of the New Testament. The response was unambiguous – there are four gospels, not one. This implies that all four were in common use by the middle of the second century and regarded as equally authoritative. Marcion and his followers were denounced and in return, leading theologians began circulating the lists of which books should be regarded as authoritative for orthodox Christians.

Another major influence on canon-formation was the semi-charismatic and prophetic movement known as Montanism that started in the third century. In Monatanist communities, prophecies under the influence of the Paraclete (Holy Spirit) were regarded as being authoritative. Some of these prophecies, relating to the end of the world, failed to come true and the question of what could be trusted became increasingly relevant. The idea that the canon should be effectively ‘closed’ against future additions was a natural development.

The New Testament as we know it today was finally confirmed by a papal declaration in AD405. In AD382, a synod in Rome accepted the list as drawn up by the great fourth century thinker Athanasius fifteen years previously. [Incidentally, Dan Brown’s assertion in The Da Vinci Code that the canon was finalised at the Council of Nicea is another indication of the author’s lack of scholarship.]

The criteria used by Athanasius and previous list-compilers occasionally differ, but the broad outlines are the same. These are – first-generation apostolic links (in Luke’s case a link to Paul; Mark is traditionally thought to be recording Peter’s memories), historical usage, i.e. how long the particular writings have been used in Christian circles, catholicity (their use across the churches, no local writings allowed) and their tone – if they contained obvious Gnostic teaching then they were out. The vast majority of rediscovered contemporaneous documents are either locally relevant, contain Christianised pagan philosophy, or of dubious historicity. It should be noted that the modern, literalist view of Scripture as the ‘Word of God’ was rarely held in the early church. The New Testament was authoritative because it was considered reliable testimony on which to base correct church practice and doctrine, not because it was ‘authored by God’.

Constantine establishes Christianity as the official religion

Christianity spread and as it came into contact with other ideas and beliefs it developed. Even before Constantine’s edict, there were many Christians producing semi-systematic theologies. Christians like Origen and Irenaeus were engaging pagan philosophers and writing ‘apologetic’ works which portrayed Christianity as a reasonable, plausible faith system.

However, it was after Constantine ascended to the Imperial throne and issued his edict that Christianity really began to develop into the doctrinal form that survives to this day. Constantine was actually in York in AD312, when he learned that his father had died and he was now Emperor. [If you go to York in England you can see a statue of him outside York Minster]. Being so far away, his political opponents seized their opportunity for power and so, before he could get into Rome and be crowned, he had to fight the battle of the Milvian Bridge. Before the battle he had his famous dream when he saw a glowing cross in the sky and heard a voice say ‘by this sign you will win’. He instructed his legion to daub the sign of the cross on their shields and armour and subsequently won the battle. The rest, as they say, is history.

At least, that’s the official version handed down for centuries. How much truth there is in it we don’t know. It may be that Constantine saw the influential church as a useful ally, or at least as too big a movement to suppress. With the church ‘on-side’, Christianity was no longer a subversive threat and what was the real difference in praying for the Emperor as opposed to praying to him? We know that Constantine was heavily into sun-worship and even after his ‘conversion’ minted coins with images of the sun on. However, cynicism aside, Constantine was the first Christian Emperor and under his patronage the church transformed into the most important cultural institution after the army. One interesting note: Constantine’s mother, Helen, toured the holy land founding churches on ancient Christian shrines and many of the sites she ‘discovered’ – including the Holy sepulchre, the Annunciation, the Church of the Nativity – are still churches today. Helen also found the ‘true cross’ (subsequently lost by the crusader armies) and many other relics long-venerated in Christian worship.

And of course, Constantine convened the most important council of bishops in Christian history: at Nicea in AD325.

The Council of Nicea

Every Sunday millions of Christians around the world say the ‘Nicene Creed’ as a public expression of their faith. This statement of belief was first put together by an ecumenical council (a collection of high ranking churchmen), under the auspices of the Emperor Constantine in AD325. The council was called together in order to lay a major dispute that had erupted in the church to rest.

The controversy, which is now known as the Arian heresy, centred on a presbyter from Alexandria called Arius who was accused of teaching a watered down faith, where Jesus was not fully divine. In fact, the Arian heresy was a conflict between pagan philosophy and received Christian tradition.

After Christianity became the official religion, a huge swathe of people became Christians, bringing with them all kinds of different religious ideas. Some of these may seem quite laughable and superstitious to modern minds, but at the time, these complicated belief systems were regarded as the most scientifically advanced theories. The most prevalent one, found in literally hundreds of variations, was the Gnostic idea of gradated divinity. This held that physical matter was inherently evil, therefore God, who was spirit and good, could not interact with it. A huge hierarchy of divinity was created working down from the supreme, spiritual, ultimate good, to a lesser divinity (the ‘demiurge’ or ‘logos’) which created the world (in some Gnostic systems the demiurge was evil), spiritual beings like angels (subdivided into different categories), humans, animals, plankton and so on. Human beings were ‘sparks of the divine’; souls trapped in evil physical matter. Liberation from matter came through secret knowledge: ‘gnosis’ in Greek, hence the term Gnosticism/Gnostic.

Thus in the Arian scheme of things, the Father was identified with the supreme good, and the Son was the created lesser divinity who in turn created the world. This was so similar to widely held beliefs that it proved immensely popular, because it combined the official religion with the most advanced religious philosophy available. And it should be pointed out that Arians never denied the divinity of Christ – but in their system he lacked full divinity, having been created. He was still the first-born of creation through whom all other things were made and he was divine, just not to the same level as the Father. So if you’re ever told that Jehovah’s Witnesses are Arians, they’re not, because they don’t subscribe any divinity to Jesus Christ in his ontological nature. Similarly if somebody tells you that the Council of Nicea voted on whether Jesus was divine or an ordinary human being, then they’ve been reading The Da Vinci Code – that’s another one of Dan Brown’s misleading (or ignorant) statements.

The key phrase in the Nicene Creed revolves around the word ‘homo-ousios’, which literally means ‘of exactly the same stuff’. Jesus is homo-ousios with the Father. Another handy little phrase is the idea that the Son is ‘eternally begotten’ and quite clearly ‘not made’. There is a relationship there, founded in eternity, that means the two relate as ‘Father’ and ‘Son’, but the idea that the ‘Son’ is a lesser divine being who was created is categorically excluded in the creed, and the eternal generation of the Son, excludes the idea of the Father ever existing alone. These all sound very complicated and obscure to us, but they do have huge overtones.

In Greek thought, salvation was often linked to being divinised, being made like God (a later thinker put it that ‘He became man, so that man could become like God’). In Greek the word ‘theosis’ is used. Now it was a principle of Greek thought that you could not be made greater by something lesser. So, if we were saved through Jesus’ death and resurrection, and if salvation meant taking on the attributes of God (i.e. eternal life), then Jesus had to be fully God. The people who argued for ‘homo-ousios’ saw this as an argument about salvation. The principle proponent of what has become the orthodox Christian view ever since was called Athanasius. He was from Alexandria and, in all honesty, was perhaps the first ecclesiastical politician and not averse to playing dirty. Kidnapping, blackmail and using mobs to break up the meetings of his opponents are some of the more probable crimes he was accused of. Yet, his legacy within Christianity is the defining creed that was issued in Nicea.

An interesting aside to note here is that Nicea was the first place where a debate was had over whether words and terms could be used that weren’t found in the Bible. The real achievement at Nicea was the recognition that Biblical terminology was not enough to fully explain the Christian faith – that actually doctrine went beyond the pages of Scripture. Ironically, it was the orthodox party, those wanting to keep to the ‘true’ faith as they had received it, who made the step of using extra-Biblical terms and concepts. Many of those who decried the use of ‘homo-ousios’ as not being Biblical wanted a version of Christianity that had more in common with pagan Greek thought than with the witness of the New Testament.

The Holy Spirit debate, leading up to the Council of Constantinople 381AD

There is a tendency among church historians to view the Council of Nicea as the culmination of Christian doctrinal development. In fact, it was only the beginning. Nicea precipitated over fifty years of theological conflict between the Arians who denied the Son was of the same level of divinity as the Father and the ‘orthodox’. As mentioned before, ‘homo-ousios’ became the key word to define your standpoint. During this time period, various different Emperors supported either the Nicene or the Arian position (except for Julian who tried to reintroduce paganism) and Athanasius found himself exiled several times when his views fell out of favour.

The Nicene Creed was finally ratified at the Council of Constantinople in 381, so it should really be called the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. It differs from the earlier version because it contains a paragraph about the Holy Spirit. In the run-up to Constantinople, the arguments had switched from the relationship of the Father and the Son to the person and purpose of the Holy Spirit. The ‘Macedonian’ party argued that the Holy Spirit was some sort of superior angel, not really divine at all. This was, of course, harking back to the hierarchical view of classes of angel, but it also had to do with a resurgence of strict monotheism; by and large the Macedonians sided with the Arians and denied the divinity of Christ.

It was left to a quite brilliant, yet reclusive, theologian called Gregory of Nazianzus to argue the case for the divinity of the Holy Spirit. In a series of theological sermons delivered in Constantinople, Gregory laid out the framework for all subsequent Trinitarian theology. Gregory’s phrase, that the Spirit ‘proceeded’ from the Father, has become the way the Spirit is understood to relate to the other persons in the one Godhead. Obviously it had to be different from begetting, else the Spirit was a second Son, so Gregory hit on procession, a word linked to some obscure Biblical passages, but also getting around the etymological objections of the Macedonians.

Gregory initially chaired the Council of Constantinople, where, under the Emperor Theodosius I, the Nicene Creed with it’s controversial use of ‘homo-ousios’ and some additional lines about the Spirit, was declared the expression of true belief; a standing it has never lost in Christian doctrine.

The procession of the Holy Spirit was the grounds for one major doctrinal conflict, a few centuries later. In the Western Church, the phrase ‘and the son’ (‘filioque’) was added to the creed, so that the Spirit proceeded from both Father and Son. This was done in a high-handed manner by the then Pope, much to the chagrin of bishops in the East and was one of the prime causes of the Great Schism between the Roman Church and what became known as the Orthodox Church in Greece, Russia and Eastern Europe.

Coming soon: Church History Part 2.