AD 381 refers to the year in which Emperor Theodosius I announced a new law requiring his subjects in the Roman world to believe in the Trinity. In promulgating this law, the Emperor hoped to settle a vexatious issue and restore law and order in his realms. Law and order was restored, after a fashion, but at the cost of massive persecutions not just of non-believers but also of Christians who held different views on the nature of Christ and his relationship to God and the Holy Spirit than those codified at the Council of Nicaea. This more hostile religious climate, very different from the tolerance which prevailed before Christianity became the dominant Roman religion, prevailed through the next millenium and beyond and still has an impact on us today.
Charles Freeman has done an excellent job of describing the confusing theological climate which prevailed in the centuries after Jesus' death and the beginning of Christianity. Christians agreed on little or nothing, it seemed, until their religion gained legal acceptance and then official status. Then political leaders, aided and abetted by sometimes unscrupulous bishops and priests, sought to make sense out of the confusion and come up with a single theology which all Christians were bound to accept. Freeman recreates the personalities of politicians like Constantine, Theodosius, and the many other Emperors, as well as those of Church leaders like Ambrose and Augustine, and helps us understand how they contributed to what became established Christian dogma on the Trinity. I found particularly interesting his final chapters, in which he traces the official Christian teachings through the European Middle Ages. I was intrigued, as well, by his chapters in which he traced connections between Christianity and Plato and Aristotle.
This is a scholarly work which is accessible to non-specialist readers. It helped me better understand some of the underpinnings and rationales behind Chrstianity as we know it today, and the "other" Christianities which were pushed to the sidelines.
_A.D. 381_ takes its name from the Second Ecumenical Council (the Council of Constantinople) which confirmed the Nicene Creed. It was also a major step in the consolidation of relations between the Christian church and the Roman state. Freeman convincingly argues that this council (and the Roman Emperor, Theodosius who convened it) conscienciously began to narrow not only Church dogma, but the intellectucal life of Europe as well, with profound and long-lasting consequences.
That there were wildly differing interpretations of Christianity in the late Roman Empire is hardly news to any historian worth their salt. What Freeman does is explain cogently what many of these interpretations (and their related sects) were, why they were considered "heretical" ("heresis" in Greek was not a pejorative, but rather simply meant "choice" - as in choice of philosophical school to which one subscribed), and how they were evenually snuffed out. At the root of the challenge presented to those who wished to impose orthodoxy was a legacy of 1500 years of independent, critical thought in the Mediterranean world, and a culture of lively theological discussion on matters relating to Christianity as a result. Central to these debates was the question of the trinity and, by extension, the nature of Jesus and the relationship among the trinty relative to the Godhead. (The Nicene Creed, for example, holds that God the Father and Jesus are of the same substance, yet there is no scriptural support for this. Matters are complicated further when one tries to consdier that "substance" raises the question of how can God the Father be material, and whether or not Jesus had always existed alongside God, or whether Jesus was a separate creation - and therefore a later and lesser incarnation.)
Freeman shows how the independent thought of the Classical world was gradually replaced with a more authoritarian attitude towards learning. This, of course, was concurrent with the gradual econcomic decay of Rome (in the West especially) and the accompanying political implosion as Roman adminsitration slowly gave way to "barbarian" control and ecumenical administration. In fact, Emperors saw the Church increasingly as a basis of support in an increasingly chaotic world just as early Church fathers saw Rome as the force of law to impose thier version of Christianity. An example of this (and an irony) is how "Jesus the executed outlaw" became "Jesus leader of legions" - evidence of the growing integration of Church into imperial politics.
In spite of a flurry of edicts by Roman emperors to eliminate paganism and destroy "heretical" interpretations of Christian dogma, it proved a slow and difficult task, particularly so in the more literate East. Nonetheless, by 535 all vestiges of paganism had been destroyed (the last Egyptian temple closed in 526, Plato's Academy shut down in 529) and most of the competing versions of Christianity were done away with. It wouldn't be until the 16th century that a rebirth of and interest in Christian dogma would be so ardently and passionately discussed, with profound consequences for Europe.
For such an abtruse subject that addresses deep philosophical questions, this is a remarkably accessble work. Freeman is clear and easy to understand, providing a wealth of additional information (about, for example, imperial Roman provincial adminstration) that helps clarify the evidence he is presenting. Of additional benefit is the bibliography, which is both current and (via his end notes) annotated. Highly recommended for those interested in Christian theology, late Classical history, or the early Middle Ages.
on December 1, 2012
This is an interesting and well written book about Christianity in its early years as a dominant religion. I learned a lot from it, and found many of its arguments convincing, though there are some points on which the author may overstate his case. All in all, well worth reading.
The book argues a) that the Emperor Theodosius imposed a single version of Christianity at the Council of Constantinople in 381, and that b) this imposition was a critical turning away from freedom of thought, and from a reliance on reasoned argument.
The author's argument about Theodosius' key role make sense: Christianity had vaulted very suddenly to its place as Rome's dominant religion, and it is not surprising that the emperor tried to shape its direction. It was just 68 years earlier, in 313, that Constantine issued an edict of toleration for the faith: before then Christianity was a persecuted religion, existing in many separate congregations, and developing many different approaches to key problems of the faith. Once the faith came out into the open -- and, indeed, came to a central role -- fissures and divisions became vividly clear. These contributed to civil disorder, and Theodosius did not like disorder.
The argument that this specific decision shut down a free-wheeling culture of debate is perhaps too narrow. I haven't read the author's "Closing of the Western Mind", but I intend to. My impression from reviews is that "Closing" focusses on Constantine's support of the Church, which moved it from outsider status towards a role as state religion. This process was intensified under Thodosius, and the logic of an imperial autocracy pushed the Church towards a single, codified set of beliefs. It seems to me that the process, the politicization of the Church and the sacralization of politics, was well underway before Theodosius. I will be better able to comment after reading Freeman's earlier book.
Be that as it may, this is a very valuable book. First, it clarifies key issues in the development of Christianity. Secondly, it underlines the interaction between political forces and systems of faith -- something that not begin in 381, and hasn't ended today. Finally, it's a good read. I read it right after "Jesus Wars", which is a more nitty-gritty discussion of a slightly later phase in the intra-Christian conflicts that were addressed, but not resolved, in 381.
on September 18, 2015
Historian Charles Freeman here details the story behind the players of credal Christianity and how it evolved. This book is a great work that exemplifies how unfounded a "trinitarian primacy" view is in light of proper historical analysis.
Here a a few brief examples that gives a flavor of Freeman's recounting of the early developing "orthodoxy."
In the years of developing dogma, a different (than that found in their scriptures), more metaphysical terminology was needed in order to clearly define the increasingly complex theological creations of numerous groups, imperial coercion and Greek philosophers turned “Christian” etc. Amidst the rhetoric, one such story involved a group called the Eunomians who in Freeman's words argued that “scripture should be interpreted in its plain sense, without the use of allegory. If the Old Testament talked of a piece of wood, that was what it meant, not necessarily a symbol prefiguring the cross. Similarly, one could not use the word ‘begotten’ and then expect it to be used in a completely different way when talking of God. The Nicenes, the Eunomians argued, were being disingenuous of, when presented with objections to their use of terminology, they avoided the issue by claiming that the words they used had a different meaning in a theological context. In other words, they could not use ‘begotten’ in a sense where it was clearly inappropriate and then claim a special meaning for it when challenged. If there was not a definable act of ‘begetting’ in the normal sense of the word, then surely the world should not be used at all.” pp. 84-85
This became a problem for some interpreters, as it had to be concluded that “one” did not mean one, “begotten” did not mean begotten in the natural sense, and firmly established rules of grammar and mathematics have no place, nor can they be trusted. If the plain and intelligible words in the Scripture are to be discarded (notwithstanding translation bias that exists) what is the point? Can it still be claimed that the “faith” is derived from Jesus and the Apostles who where Jews worshiping and obeying the God of the Hebrews in the way which he had commanded them? Such was the case with the Cappadocian Gregory of Nazianzus. During this period of theological unrest and downright violence and hostility, Christian intellectuals (according to Freeman) “had shown themselves to be well read and highly sophisticated and ingenious in argument. It is true that some participants, such as Athanasius, used invective rather than reason in their dealing with rivals, and both sides felt able to threaten their opponents with the certainty of hell fire. However, this was not the first, or certainly the last, academic debate in history where personal emotions have transcended reflective argument.” p. 74
Gregory fought against the subordinationalist views of his opponents in favor of the Nicene theology. They argued against him that the “act of begetting must have involved the will of the Father and the formulation of that will must have preceded the act itself…the pre-existence of the Father to the Son must be assumed.” p. 84
Gregory tried to combat it, but had to accept that it was a mystery, and thus questions were raised. During his final oration he tackled the nature and purpose of the Holy Spirit. There was opposition from ‘Macedonians’ who were in favor of keeping the original Nicene Creed of 325 where the Holy Spirit was given special status. However, Gregory had to accept that “among our own [Christian] experts, some took the Holy Spirit as an active process, some as a creature, some as God. Others were agnostic on this point.” Gregory accepted that the theologian Origen believed the Holy Spirit to be limited in power. This made his task of proving the Spirit to be not only fully divine but also consubstantial all the more difficult. “At this point a number of objections were raised…what is the biblical evidence for the divinity of the Spirit? Where is the evidence that it has been worshiped as divine in the past? Does divinity automatically imply consubstantiality? If God the Father is ‘unbegotten’ and Jesus is his ‘begotten’ Son, then how does the Holy Spirit relate to them both? In answer to the last question, Gregory introduces the idea of ‘procession’, as in John 15:26, ‘the Holy Spirit which proceeds from the Father’. Irritated by an interaction from the congregation enquiring how he can explain ‘procession’, he retorts: ‘You explain the unbegotten nature of the Father and I will give you a biological account of the Son’s begetting and the Spirit’s proceeding – and let us go mad the pair of us for prying into God’s secrets.’ In effect, he was opting out of the argument. Dealing with another objection - that if one adds the Spirit to the Father and Son, then one risks having three gods – he became entangled in explaining why mathematics is not an appropriate way of dealing with the Trinity.” p. 87
Quite unnaturally then, in order to explain Jesus’ relationship to the Father, the word homoousios was suggested, which was not overly popular. “Homoousios was a term taken from Greek philosophy, not from scripture. It had been used by pagan writers such as Plotinus to describe the relationship between the soul and the divine. Even the most ingenious biblical scholars combing their way through the Old and New Testaments could find no Christian equivalent. Quite apart from this the word had actually been condemned by a council of bishops meeting in Antioch in 268 on the grounds that it failed to provide sufficient distinction between Father and Son, and users of the term risked being associated with a view that had already been condemned in the third century, Sabellianism...the word homoousios was a clear embarrassment and was to be condemned for years to come.” pp. 55-56
So then, the Eunomians (among others) rejected homoousios because “God the Father was ‘unbegotten’ – he had existed without cause from the beginning of time – while Jesus the Son was ‘begotten’…the distinction between an ‘unbegotten and a ‘begotten’ being is such that one cannot possibly argue that the two are of the same substance.” p. 64
Freeman made a comment that I thought to be particularly interesting, because it’s not unlike the attitude observed among some today: “Fundamental to Gregory’s preaching was the belief that only a few, very committed, thinkers were able to tackle theological issues, and that they alone could discern and preach what was the unassailable truth (which Gregory believed, of course, was the Nicene faith). Here were shades of his mentor Plato: the select few ascend to a deeper understanding of the immaterial world, whose ‘reality’ they alone have the right to interpret for others.” p. 80
When faced with the argumentation of his challengers, Gregory challenged the view that “through the application of rational thought to the scriptures it is possible to know God…by believing that they could understand God...his opponents would invariably get a false and limited perception of the Almighty, and it was not surprising, therefore, that they came up with false doctrines – such as that Jesus is not fully God but a later creation.” p. 83, 84
Again, this accusation is one that has found its place in the pages of history. What he espoused were ideas and rhetoric that would be repeated ad infinitum. Pertaining to the same difficulties, he addressed the question as to why the Spirit was not seen or recognized as God in the Gospels: “His answer was that the doctrine of the Trinity has been subject to progressive revelation. First, God the Father has to be revealed, in the Old Testament; then, through the gospels, Jesus the Son; and finally the Holy Spirit, who appears to enthuse the disciples after the Passion and though the fiery tongues at Pentecost. ‘God meant it to be by piecemeal additions…by progress and advance from glory to glory, that the light of the Trinity should shine upon more illustrious souls’. During Jesus’ time on earth there had simply been too much for the disciples to take in, and the Godhead of the Spirit was retained until they were able to absorb it.” p. 87
Whether or not theological views of trinitarianism, a high Christology or otherwise are maintained is not the point. What’s astounding is that some proponents of traditional orthodoxy are under the erroneous impression that it comes directly and explicitly from the Scripture. One only needs a small amount of ecclesiastical history to see the numerous factions and opinions at war, which over time developed into what is now accepted as “orthodox”. To claim there was always a clear distinction and progression of orthodox belief (derived solely from Scripture) against the nasty heretics (no matter who they were, Ebionites, Marcionites, Arians, Gnostics, Docetists, Eunomians etc.) is to misunderstand (or ignore) what actually happened.
Lastly, this is clearly seen in the work of Thomas Torrance, who on the sixteen hundredth anniversary of the council of Constantinople of 381 gave lectures at the Princeton Theological Seminary which were then written up and published in 1988 as The Trinitarian Faith. Freeman gives a good amount of detail regarding this: "“Torrance's thesis is that the relationship between Father and Son as expounded at Nicaea, 'is the supreme truth upon which everything else in the Gospel depends...It is on the ground of what God has actually revealed of his own nature in him [Jesus Christ] as his only begotten Son that everything else to be known of God and of his relation to the world and to human beings is to be understood.' The bishops meeting at Nicaea confirmed a doctrine that had always been inherent in the Church's teaching. Torrance is therefore one of those theologians who sees the Nicene Trinity not as a new concept hammered out in the specific context of the fourth century, but as an eternally living truth that needed defending from those who tried to subvert it...The case of Torrance highlights how an alternative theological tradition has come to supplant the historical reality...This approach is strengthened by the assertions that the bishops were in consensus and that there was no possible theological alternative to Nicaea as it was developed in 381. It is to be found in most standard introductions to theology and omits any reference to the role of Theodosius...Yet can one obliterate the historical factors that shaped the making of Christian doctrine, in favor of doctrine being 'revealed' by God? pp. 197-201
This book is well written and researched and is a must read for any who seek to understand the conflicts that gave rise to the dogma that the Church came to call Orthodoxy.
on April 12, 2016
I thoroughly enjoy reading the historic narrative and research by Charles Freeman, having read most of his outstanding works. I am rather perplexed as to why the author has a grievance with Richard Dawkins who is a world famous scientist as the author is a historian. Richard Dawkins has honestly attempted to reveal the factual reality of life and that religion is irrational, man-made beliefs based on faith, faith which is blind trust or belief without any evidence which has and is presently causing immeasurable human suffering and misery worldwide! As to “A.D. 381” it describes the historic development of the religious authoritarianism of the Christian church resulting in centuries of European theocracy reflecting the anti-humanistic teachings of Augustine that has so tortured the human psyche. Abrahamic religions as Roman Catholicism strike at the heart of human nature, repressing and distorting human sexuality in a manner that causes tremendous psychological and emotional harm. Roman Catholic Church has usually been on the wrong side of history for 2,000 years and complicit in supporting authoritarian oppression and worldwide and anti-democratic racist and anti-Semitic fascism in Europe, in the 20th Century, Franco, Mussolini, Hitler and Pavelic of Croatia, which I assume St. Augustine would approve! The convoluted evolution of Nicene Creed and nature of Christ while of historic importance is reminiscent of the ancient debate of "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" All religions are based on myth, misogyny, fear, and guilt, they just have different holidays! Voltaire said “Those who can make you believe in absurdities can make you commit atrocities!”