Liturgy and evangelism/mission

One reason, I suspect, why some evangelical Anglicans have dropped liturgy is a desire to engage the culture around them, to be more evangelistic, to be missional, to make disciples. The storyline thus goes that liturgy, whether Common Worship or the BCP, is not relevant to our post-Christian culture, and Sunday morning must be made accessible to the unchurched ‘seeker’ who may wander in or who has been invited by a friend.

Thus, make church look as little like ‘church’ as possible.

If my initial premiss is correct, it is worth noting that even a ‘seeker-friendly’ church service will still, in fact, look nothing like any ‘normal’ event your unchurched ‘seeker’ has ever been to. Prayers of any sort are not part of the secular culture. Preaching, Bible reading, singing songs led by a guitarist, shaking hands with strangers — none of these things is part of a normal event that I can think of, except for those ‘humanist’ churches that have consciously modelled themselves after Christian worship.

The ‘seeker-friendly’ church service thus fails, anyway.

Nonetheless, the concern is, to a degree, valid: How can we help the curious unbeliever find Jesus and be part of the Sunday morning worship event? How can we worship God in a way that does not simply leave the uninitiated confused?

Liturgy need not leave the unchurched or non-Christian visitor bewildered or turned off.

To keep our focus on the Eucharistic liturgy (or ‘Holy Communion’ or ‘the Lord’s Supper’), I have seen churches that print out leaflets with marginal notes to help those unfamiliar with liturgy to understand what is going on. Liturgy itself is no longer an obstacle to the unbeliever.

Not only that, the liturgy itself is a recapitulation, a symbolic (with all the weight of symbolon in Greek) re-enactment of the Gospel as well as a prefiguration of the heavenly banquet we all look forward to. We evangelicals like to proclaim the Gospel that is Christ crucified for us. In word and action, the Eucharistic liturgy brings to the mind this very Gospel we love to preach. And it does so in words almost entirely drawn from Scripture.

The Canadian BAS and the BCP (and, I assume, Common Worship) include penitent confession as well as a proclamation of absolution through Christ’s redeeming death on the Cross. The ‘Comfortable Words’ of 1662 (a series of Bible verses about repentance and forgiveness) are a proclamation of God’s willingness to forgive the repentent sinner as powerful as any Billy Graham Crusade, I would argue.

Moreover, in a BCP service of Holy Communion, there are at least two Bible readings; if it is preceded by Morning Prayer, increase that to four plus a Psalm(s)! We evangelicals believe that the word of God is living and active — it can cut to the quick and save souls, can it not? And if it can be obscure, is that not what the homily is for?

Add to this the rich tradition of evangelical hymnody that proclaims in beautiful verse the Gospel of Christ crucified.

I truly believe that a service of Holy Communion done with clarity and even a little guidance is not only not a hindrance to the unbelieving visitor but proclaims the Gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Finally, while there may be some who would be turned off by liturgy of any sort, there are others in our culture who are drawn to symbol and sacrament and turned off by touchy-feely, folksy church services. If we are to be utilitarian about liturgy, why reject our Anglican heritage in the name of evangelism, doing things in a way that will actually keep some unbelievers (let alone folks like me, who seem not to matter) from returning?

This is why it saddens me to see evangelical Anglicans jettisoning our rich liturgical heritage in favour of faddish ‘seeker-friendly’ church services — it need not be this way.

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Culture wars diminish and distract from Gospel witness

When I was a kid, we used to sing a song in church with the lines:

They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love
Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love

I’m not disputing that most Christians I know are, in fact, genuinely lovely and loving people. However, many of us have managed to produce a public face that does not look so much loving as angry. Possibly bigoted (which may be accurate of true Christianity, depending on a. how you define bigotry and b. how you define true Christianity). But not necessarily loving, and not necessarily filled with the love of Christ.

Today, I read the piece by George Takei (of Mr Sulu fame!) criticising the practice of Indiana and some other US states to allow business owners to refuse services to people on the grounds that so doing would contravene the owners’ sincerely held religious beliefs. Given that bar owners technically already have a legal responsibility to keep people from getting drunk, the only application for this that I can think of is if an unmarried heterosexual couple or a gay couple wanted to spend the night at a hotel owned by a conservative Christian/Jew/Muslim (most likely Christian, quite frankly).

There is a variety of responses to this, but the one that hits me first is: Where is the uncompromising love and the Gospel witness at a moment such as this? Is my job as a Christian to police the morality of my fellow citizens? Or is it my job to love them effluously while at the same time being a strict policeman of my own morality?

It’s not just the battle over what sorts of relationships the secular government wants to extend certain protections to that is distracting, though — so don’t let the George Takei piece blind you to other issues.

Elsewhere in the USA, a politician has apparently said that rape is beautiful if it results in the conception of a child. It is one thing to say that, regardless of how a child was conceived that child has a right to live and a mother a duty to carry the child to term, and quite another to use complimentary adjectives about a heinous, hideous, destructive act that can leave serious emotional, psychological, and physical wounds in a person. Even if this may be a misquotation, it is a very clear instance of how culture wars distract from the Gospel, in my opinion. Whatever the politician said, this is what the world heard.

Rather than scoring points in a culture war, shouldn’t we be providing refuge for the victims of terrible acts of male aggression? How many rape victims would feel safe in churches associated with such rhetoric? How many young women who have had abortions would feel loved in churches who rail against the practice vociferously? Where is the Gospel witness? Or are we just moralising yet again?

These Dinosaurs certainly existed.

Science has also come under fire in the culture wars. One woman goes so far as to say that dinosaurs never existed. I’m not kidding. The video is here, at ‘Crazy Christian Mother Thinks Dinosaurs Never Existed.’ American anti-establishment culture combined with a variety of evangelical anti-intellectualism has led to people making us look like a bunch of idiots. A friend commented on Facebook concerning the dinosaur video that either religion makes you stupid, or if you are stupid, you’re drawn to religion. (Or something along those lines.)

A disconcerting moment came to me whilst listening to the Newsboys album God’s Not Dead. The beginning of the title song is either recorded live at a concert or from the film (which I’ve never seen). Michael Tate (of former DC Talk fame) is talking to the crowd about ‘scientists’ telling us there’s no God and all the usual stuff, and in his dismissal of the naturalists/atheists, getting big cheers from the crowd. But when he moves to Gospel proclamation, when he starts proclaiming the power of God to save us from the power and penalty of sin, evil, and death — then the cheers dimish a little.

A page from the Statute of the Guild of San Martino, 1362; in the Museo Correr, Venice (my pic)
A page from the Statute of the Guild of San Martino, 1362; in the Museo Correr, Venice (my pic)

Shouldn’t these be our biggest cheers? Not only that ‘God’s not dead’, not only that there’s a Creator (I mean, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and certain Buddhists can claim the same), but that He is the God of unconditional love who chooses to spill over into our mundane (world-bound) history and raise us to heaven, not simply in spite of our own sin and wickedness, but precisely because He loves us more than we can imagine. That’s Good News! Shouldn’t our proclamation of the Gospel of Grace be the loudest, clearest message we send to an unbelieving world?

I’m not saying we shouldn’t hold firm as individuals to a traditional, scriptural viewpoint on issues of ethics. But what is the public faith — the public face — of the church? Are we (figuratively) washing the feet of unbelieving neighbours or (sometimes literally) yelling in their faces? Are we telling them the resplendent glory of the story of the God Who became a man to set us free, or are we telling them all about how they’re sinners (and we, presumably [as they think it], are not)? Are we preaching Christ crucified, or simply some pat answers and apologetics?

I realise that even broaching these topics can bring a firestorm of activity in a blog’s comments. So, please, take a breath and think carefully about what you’re going to post, and please keep to the main thesis of this post, which is not whether gay marriage is right or abortion is right or evolution is true, but whether issues like these are distracting us from authentic Gospel witness in Anglophone Christianity — if you disagree with me on that issue, feel free to do so lovingly. If your comments are uncharitable or libellous, I reserve the right to remove them as moderator of my blog.

The False East-West Dichotomy and Poetic Theology

Poussin, The Inspiration of the Poet (1630)

I recently remarked to a couple of Master’s students groaning about reading Homer that if they’re interested in Late Antiquity, Homer’s not totally irrelevant, given that Gregory of Nazianzus wrote poetry in Homeric verse. A (very pleasant and overall thoughtful) young convert to Eastern Orthodoxy remarked that he really liked Gregory’s theological poetry. I said that I liked his poems, too. Then this fellow said that you don’t find theological poetry in western theology, and that a reading group of which he is a member had been reading the Second Theological Oration and he loved some of the poetry in it.

I asked if the ‘poetry’ was written in verse.

No, it was just very beautiful.

I said that that’s actually rhetoric, and that that’s the Fathers for you. They have rhetorical training, and such beauty comes through in their theology, that people like Gregory, Augustine and Ambrose didn’t study rhetoric for it to have no effect on their style of writing.

Our conversation moved on, because I’m bad at confronting people face to face when they say stuff like that.

In the above exchange, there was one category error and (at least) one misrepresentation of western theology. Now, I’m not going to say that Gregory of Nazianzus at his high-flying, rhetorical, ‘poetic’ best isn’t magnificent and stunning. He is. And his theology is good, too. And other eastern Church Fathers, like Gregory of Nyssa or Basil of Caesarea or Athanasius or, in Syriac, Ephraim the Syrian (literal poetry, in his case), have all displayed to me the stylistic beauty of their writings over the years.

But to say that anything beautiful is poetry is not to know what poetry is. And to say that western theology has no poetry is not to know the western heritage.

Sometimes I think a lot of people leave the western churches for Eastern Orthodoxy because we’ve been holding back our own riches of a variety that Eastern Orthodoxy spreads out lavishly. I do not imagine that my acquaintance has read beautiful, ‘poetic’, rhetorical western theology and failed to recognise what it is. I imagine that he has not read it.

So, first: Western theology has poetry. Literally. This should go without saying on this blog, given the series of holy week poems I posted this year, including ones by Theodulph of Orléans (9th c), Ambrose of Milan (4th c), Venantius Fortunatus (6th-7th c), Thomas Aquinas (13th c), and a couple of anonymous ones. I have also discussed Ambrose of Milan’s hymnography. It is worth observing that two of the greatest theological minds of the western tradition, Sts Ambrose of Milan and Thomas Aquinas, were both, literally speaking, poets. So were Peter Abelard and Bonaventure, one a controversial theologian, the other a mystical theologian. Others who are famous as poets also wrote theologically, such as Prudentius and Sedulius. Also, Dante has more than a little theology in his poetry, and of the moderns, we need look no further than the Holy Sonnets of Donne, or the theological work of Spenser, or the world of Francis Thompson or Gerard Manley Hopkins to find westerners (Anglican & Roman Catholic) writing theological poetry.

And, second: Western theology can be poetic. In prose. So, figuratively? Today, when a lot of people say ‘western theology’, they actually mean either something that looks like mediaeval scholasticism (which is both a way of thinking as well as a style/genre of approach) or something that looks like the Enlightenment. That all western theology is about precision and order and sets itself out in Aristotelian syllogisms and spends its time being obsessed with the rational and forgets the mystical and so on and so forth.

This is largely a caricature, and it is entirely inappropriate for western, Latin theology before some time in the Middle Ages, and not always inappropriate thereafter. Not only do western theologians produce a good supply of poetic, beautiful, rhetorical work, eastern theologians use their fair share of logic and reason (so John of Damascus, most of Basil of Caesarea’s On the Holy Spirit, much of Gregory of Nazianzus’ Theological Orations, Cyril of Alexandria, and so forth). The style of theology we are caricatured as doing exclusively is not our exclusive domain. And the style we are imagined as not engaging in is part of our territory, too.

A bit of a sawdusty, Victorian translation of the final book of St Augustine’s On the Trinity has some beauty to it. St. Augustine’s own mystical vision ends in the beatific vision — yet the light is too dazzling for mortal eye:

Lift up your eyes to the light itself, and fix them upon it if you can. For so you will see how the birth of the Word of God differs from the procession of the Gift of God, on account of which the only-begotten Son did not say that the Holy Spirit is begotten of the Father, otherwise He would be His brother, but that He proceeds from Him. Whence, since the Spirit of both is a kind of consubstantial communion of Father and Son, He is not called, far be it from us to say so, the Son of both. But you can not fix your sight there, so as to discern this lucidly and clearly; I know you can not. I say the truth, I say to myself, I know what I cannot do; yet that light itself shows to you these three things in yourself, wherein you may recognize an image of the highest Trinity itself, which you can not yet contemplate with steady eye. Itself shows to you that there is in you a true word, when it is born of your knowledge, i.e. when we say what we know: although we neither utter nor think of any articulate word that is significant in any tongue of any nation, but our thought is formed by that which we know; and there is in the mind’s eye of the thinker an image resembling that thought which the memory contained, will or love as a third combining these two as parent and offspring. (De Trin. 15.50)

Not necessarily theology at its most poetic/rhetorical/beautiful. But not lacking in what a Romantic eschewing verse might call ‘poetry’. If you’ve spent your time with Latin Christianity through the medium of text books or of dry dogmatics, refresh your understanding of it. Grab One Hundred Latin Hymns: Ambrose to Aquinas by P G Walsh and Christopher Husch, or St Bernard of Clairvaux, or Lady Julian of Norwich, or any of a multitude of western theologians and poets, and reacquaint yourself with the tradition we all seem to have forgotten and then scorned.

In this case, it is not familiarity that has bred contempt.

The alleged ‘great apostasy’ of Mormonism and the New Testament Canon

Yesterday I met a couple of Mormon missionaries in the Meadows, and we had a bit of a chat because I decided, for once, not to be rude and not to basically ignore them. I saw them in the distance and even prayed the Jesus Prayer, saying that I’d talk to them if they spoke to me. And, of course, they spoke to me.

I think it would be really hard to be a Mormon these days. Not only do you have to work through all the arguments against belief that non-heretical Christians have to work through, you have to work through all the arguments against Joseph Smith and The Book of Mormon and all of that as well.

The elder who did all the talking brought up the Great Apostasy as an explanation for why The Book of Mormon was necessary. According to Mormons, at the death of the last apostle, there was a Great Apostasy, and all Christians everywhere turned away from the truth, and God waited around for 1800 years or so until it was the kairos and he granted a new revelation to Joseph Smith and cleared out terrible heresies such as the Holy Trinity.

Now, this Catholic website has some solid biblical arguments against the Great Apostasy, so I encourage you to read it and work through it.

I’m going to take a tack that uses my own special expertise. Church history.

According to a tradition Mormons would maybe reject since the ‘apostate’ church teaches it, the last Apostle to die was St John the Evangelist, around the turn of the second century. Everything that the church did after that doesn’t count because we fell into apostasy. At this time, if we accept the traditional attributions of the New Testament texts, the entire New Testament existed.*

But, if the whole New Testament existed, did all Christians believe that all 27 books thereof were the inspired revelation of God? What about other books? Were there other things they may have gone for that we and the Mormons don’t?

The answer to the first question is No. The answer to the third question is Maybe. In A High View of Scripture? The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon, Craig D Allert addresses the related issues of authority and the canon of Scripture, and he demonstrates that it took centuries for the organic process of sifting out what qualifies as the ‘canon’ of Scripture to transpire; he also demonstrates that the unwritten ‘rule of faith’, such as the Apostles’ Creed, was seen as authoritative alongside the growing sense of authority applied to the apostolic writings. It was the coinherence of this growing Christian canon alongside the authority of the rule of faith (and church leaders, no doubt) that helped settle the Christian canon of Scripture.

We start getting lists in the late 100s, such as the famous Muratorian fragment (ca. 170, to date it early), but most are much later, many emerging from the pens of, say, St Athanasius or St Augustine in the 300s, or as late as Pope Gelasius in the late 400s. Of course, it does seem that along the way a lot of prominent Christians were drawing from the same collection of apostolic documents and treating them as Scripture, even if the boundaries hadn’t been formed up yet.

One story I like is that in the 200s, a clergyman wrote the Bishop of Antioch if it was okay to use the Gospel of Peter at Church. The bishop said, ‘Sure!’ After, the Gospel is the Gospel, and Peter is Peter. Then he got his hands on a copy and saw that it’s a bit … wonky. I imagine this sort of thing happened more often in the Early Church than we are comfortable with — but less than extreme, pro-Gnostic cynics/skeptics would have us believe.

One canonical text that took a while to gain universal acceptance was the Book of Revelation. I understand it never quite passed muster to enter the Byzantine liturgy, but I could be wrong.

One non-canonical text that pre-dates the alleged ‘Great Apostasy’ and which many ‘proto-orthodox’ treated as Scripture for a long time is 1 Clement. Another text that a lot of people really liked was The Shepherd of Hermas — its popularity lasted so long that in the fifth century, John Cassian cites it the same way he cites canonical texts (this is the only non-canonical text he so treats).

The ins and outs make for a fantastic, messy story. But in the end, if you want to accept the 27-book New Testament, you have to accept that the Holy Spirit was working in the Church for centuries after the year 100, helping the people of God come to grips with the new faith and new life produced by the Jesus Event, and that only through much prayer and meditation was this 27-book canon sorted out.

And it was sorted out by people who often read like Trinitarians, some of whom were fully-fledged Nicene Trintarians, others possibly ‘proto-Trinitarians’ before Nicaea, others of whom would have rejected a bodily God even if they couldn’t yet push belief towards Trinitarianism, all of whom live during the alleged Great Apostasy of Mormonism.

So — why trust the New Testament if you’re a Mormon? Why trust the judgement of a church you condemn as apostate and heretical? If our forebears were inspired enough to choose the right revealed texts, why would they also perpetrate what Mormons consider one of the greatest heresies — belief in the Most Holy Trinity?

I admit that orthodox Christian history and orthodox Christianity are less tidy than the Mormon solution. Maybe that’s why they are more true.

*I’m not actually arguing that, say, 2 Peter was actually written by Peter or even before ca. 100 — just saying this for the sake of argument.

On Blond Jesus — how a little art history can go a long way

Not blond, but pale and skinny in this fresco by Fra Angelico in the Louvre
Not blond, but pale and skinny in this fresco by Fra Angelico in the Louvre

Everyone once in a while, someone, maybe a friend in conversation, maybe a preacher from a pulpit, will come down hard on traditional western images of Christ, saying that that pale, blond, slender Jesus is a remote image of someone who is very close. Or, as Mark Driscoll says, he can’t worship a Jesus whom he could beat up. Or there is a complaint that the white Jesus is just another example of western, imperial triumphalism over the Middle Eastern, Jewish roots of Christianity.

A few words about how misguided the above representations are in order, then.

Starting with the last first: Most of these images are too old to be imperialist. In fact, they’re often so old and from places so far removed from the Middle East that it would surprise me enormously to see a swarthy Jesus. In, say, mediaeval Norway. Third, I have a feeling that, even if the artists were thinking, ‘Let’s make Him look Jewish’, they would have made him pale, given that a lot of European Jews are, in fact, pale.

A pale Jesus from San Marco, Venice (not my pic)
A pale Jesus from San Marco, Venice (not my pic)

But just as there is more to slender, wispy mediaeval saints than their status as pillars, so also is there more to our images of Christ. We must ask ourselves why Jesus is sometimes blond, and why sometimes a fairly slender specimen of the male gender. The answer will silence those of Mark Driscoll’s ilk and hopefully be the starting place of an answer for those who find these Jesuses remote.

Mid-14th c. French diptych, Bibliotheque nationale de France, Département des Monnaies, médailles et antiques (my pic)
He can’t help but be pale when carved out of ivory. Mid-14th c. French diptych, Bibliotheque nationale de France, Département des Monnaies, médailles et antiques (my pic)

So, if you ever see a blond Jesus, why would that be? (Blond Jesuses are actually hard to find; mind you, my experience of looking is mostly Italian and Orthodox art.) The answer, as always with mediaeval art and architecture, is theological (who’d’ve guessed?):

Beauty.

Byzantine mosaic of the Transfiguration, 11th-12th c, Louvre (my pic)
Byzantine mosaic of the Transfiguration, 11th-12th c, Louvre (my pic)

These images are not supposed to be perfect, mimetic, historically accurate pictures of Jesus as he actually was whilst on earth. Byzantine icons (which are definitely never blond) and western mediaeval paintings/mosaics are, as Rowan Williams puts it, ‘theology in line and colour.’

Jesus is perfect. Jesus is God. He is, spiritually speaking, beautiful. In fact, He is Perfection. He is Beauty. He is the Good/Beautiful (to kalon) that Plato aspires to in the Symposium.

As a result, Jesus has a tendency to adhere to cultural standards of beauty wherever he goes. This is the short and simple answer why northern Europeans would make a blond Jesus — because they are blond. Because blond in their culture is beautiful. So Jesus is beautiful. So he is blond. And white. Like them. It is the enculturation of Christian theology and Gospel.

This, when combined with the spiritualising of the human form I blogged about earlier, produces our pale, slender Christ Crucified. Put Him in stained glass, and He also is a reminder of the Uncreated Light, drawing us upward into God with Gothic architecture and its spirituality of light and of height.

Christ in Glory
Blond Jesus, from Haworth Parish Church (my pic)

People still do this — we have black Christs, First Nations Christs, Chinese Christs. By doing this, we take the particularity of the Christian narrative — that God became a man in first-century Roman Judaea to save us — and make it universal — He did so for you, here and now in this remote corner of the world. Here in Paris, in Toronto, in Timbuktu — Christ is for you.

Chinese Jesus, ca. 1879 (thanks, Franciscans!)

And He is Beautiful.

anglican?

Repost from elsewhere in 2007

Chancel of St Paul's Within the Walls Episcopal Church, Rome
Chancel of St Paul’s Within the Walls Episcopal Church, Rome

Here’s an adaptation of something I posted as a comment on my friend Rick’s blog. It seemed pertinent to my discussions of Anglicanism:

There was a period of time in which I tried being ‘merely Christian.’ But, try as I did, no matter what books I read, which people I spoke to, what churches I visited, I found that it wasn’t so much a LABEL as an adjective or a noun, a word, that describes me.

Unfortunately, that word is almost useless as it functions as a word.

ANGLICAN.

Oh, how diverse a word! Anglo-Catholic, traditionalist, pew-loving, liturgical, non-liturgical, modern, postmodern, emerging, crumbling, simply traditional, orthodox traditionalist, orthodox, neo-orthodox, evangelical, low-church, evangelical high-church, conservative, liberal, gay rights, women’s lib, charismatic, confused, frustrated, anguished, blind, joyful, dancing-in-the-aisles, genuflecting, apostolic, Apostolic . . .

But give me a Book of Common Prayer. Give me Gothic and Norman (Romanesque) architecture. Give me candles, stained glass, vestments, and hymns. Give me the faith of Cranmer, Latimer, Ridley, Hooker, Andrewes, Donne, Wesley, CS Lewis, NT Wright. Give me a living tradition that I am a living part of, give me symbolic actions. Give me visual symbols. Give me four readings from the Scriptures on a Sunday followed by a 15 min to half-hour sermon. Give me these, but most of all, give me Christ. Give me the Lord Jesus and a love for Him. Give me the Crucified God. Give me His gift-giving Spirit. Give me a love of the Scriptures. Give me respect for His holy Name. Give me these and I will gladly submit to the word, the label, Anglican.

Any of you who have viewed my Facebook profile know my ambivalence to the word, though — Religious Views: Christian — [insert appropriate adjective(s) here] Anglican.

It used to be, “Christian — confused, frustrated Anglican,” but that wasn’t descriptive enough.

Update 2014: It currently says, ‘Christian: Franciscan Orthodox Anglican (?) Currently attending the Free Church of Scotland’

Just some thoughts . . .

Constantine and the ‘Jesus of faith’

Some day, I think I’ll write a book about the Emperor Constantine I (‘the Great’, r. 306ish-337) for the popular audience. It seems to me that quality research about the man has been conducted within scholarly circles in recent decades, yet popular audiences continue to believe not only old stories but new ones made up since the old stories were overturned in a scholarly discourse no one but other specialists reads.

And I don’t begrudge scholars the specialist literature. I am going to contribute to it the moment my first publication hits the presses. Nonetheless, sometimes this knowledge needs to step beyond the Ivory Tower to the mean streets of the ‘real world’.

I am at present thinking along these lines because of the following from Michael Wood in the October issue of BBC History magazine, who writes:

Christians have got used to the huge fissure between the Jesus of faith and the Jesus of history. Not that the Jesus of history isn’t a compelling figure: a Jewish exorcist, faith healer and teacher swimming in the soup of Hellenistic mystery religions and millennial cults of first-century Palestine, an altogether more believable and human character. It was the pivotal role of Paul in the construction of the narrative, and the appropriation of that narrative by the Roman empire under Constantine in the 330s, that turned him into the Jesus of faith. (27)

The educated reader doesn’t go to Dan Brown for history because she is too busy reading the quite good BBC History magazine to fill her hours. And here we have Michael Wood basically giving us Dan Brown, at least as far as Constantine (Constantine!) is concerned. Wood may be a good scholar of Anglo-Saxon Britain, but he needs to put better investment in the history of Christianity.

I won’t deal with the enormously debatable things he says about Jesus, Paul, and how Paul apparently constructed the narrative of the Jesus of faith, although I understand that Pauline studies has got beyond that sort of thinking these days, and large books by clever people point to a collective belief in the Jesus of faith on the part of all the apostles, not just Paul. Whatever. People who do Biblical Studies can do that.

Let’s look briefly at Constantine, because not even PhDs seem to have a clue what influence he had.

Now, maybe my problem stems from the fact that Wood does not even tell us what the Jesus of faith looks like. It’s the sort of trigger phrase that I’d think Wikipedia would flag. It means too many things. And within the things it means, Wood’s description of the Jesus of history is included, simply amplified.

This leaves me no alternative but to imagine that Wood means, by the Jesus of faith, the Jesus who redeems the world and the Jesus who is God.

What does Constantine have to do with either of those?

The former — pretty much nothing. The idea of Jesus’ death and life as redeeming and atoning for sin and bringing humanity to God, besides being in the New Testament, is at the forefront of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, most especially St Irenaeus of Lyons (fl. 180s) but, if I could remember names, all over the place elsewhere.

The latter — well. That’s a funny story. You see, the Dan Brown version goes that there were these really happy, liberal, feminist Gnostics whom the angry, conservative, patriarchal orthodox destroyed at the Council of Nicaea under big, evil Constantine who wielded imperial power for the Church. I’ve shaken my head at this before.

Only the Gnostics have nothing to do with anything in the major events of church history starting in the 300s, a fact I’ve wondered at on this blog. Nicaea was a debate between ‘Arians’ and … um … ‘Nicenes’ … about the divinity of Jesus. And the remarkable thing is, the ‘Arians’ would have been willing to say that Jesus was/is God. Well, some of them. Not a homogeneous group (neither are the ‘Nicenes’). They just would have rejected the idea that Jesus is of the same substance (homoousios/consubstantialis) as the Father. I mean, at bottom-line Arianism.

The theology that was being argued at Nicaea was two sides of the theology borne not only from the New Testament Scriptures but the logos theology of St Justin Martyr (d. 165) and Origen of Alexandria (184-253) that takes John 1 with the utmost seriousness and tries to see how it works that Jesus, who is the logos, is also theos.

And, outside of the high-flying theology, we have Melito of Sardis, c. 170, proclaiming Christ as God in unequivocal terms. So also does Polycarp in his martyrdom and the martyrs of Lyons and Vienne in like manner. Christians believed that Jesus was God.

So what did Constantine do??

What Nicaea did was help settle an unsettling conflict about how the faith in Jesus as God was articulated and what it means for Christians to believe it. It wasn’t actually settled until 381 within the empire, and persisted amongst the ‘barbarians’ for centuries.

This is to say: the Jesus of faith existed long before Constantine, and someone like him would even have been believed in by today’s media-darling Gnostics.