4 Reasons to Get to Know Ancient Christianity

Sts Nicholas, Chrysostom, Basil

Many have found themselves and their faith unsettled as the West entered, enters, dwells in, the state of late modern existence called ‘postmodern’. As well, whether the ‘postmodern’ has had anything to do with it, in the same decades since I heard my father proclaim the death of Christendom in a 1998 sermon, many have found discomfort with the church of evangelicalism for many a reason.

Some left to the liberal side of the mainline. Others left to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. Some of us stayed put as best we could but found ourselves slowly transforming into something different from what we once were. For example, last year, I was venting to my brother some frustrations with the church I attended (Reformed, biblicist, low church, evangelical, pseudo-Anglican). I said I didn’t think I was an evangelical anymore (even though my commitment to historic orthodox theology and ethics is as strong as ever), and he said I sounded like a catholic Anglican.

After all, at the time I was reading Alexander de Hales (1185-1245) on grace in the original Latin for comfort in my plight (a friend had sent it to me).

Of course, I have only stayed put ecclesially (-ish?). What I have been doing for most of my (as yet brief) adult life has been lunging into ancient, mediaeval, Byzantine, and Orthodox Christianity as my solace, alongside the English poets and the Prayer Book. Perhaps you, too, find yourself in an awkward place at your church — you affirm historic orthodoxy but rankle at the pulpit, shudder at things other evangelicals say, and don’t know if you’re becoming a liberal or an Anglican. (Become Eastern Orthodox, it seems the best option right now.)

If so, here are some reasons, regardless of where your ecclesiastical home lands, why theologically conservative Protestants should get to know ancient Christianity.

1. The New Testament

No ecumenical council determined which books are in the canon of the New Testament. And if you understand the way western canon law works, the 397 Council of Carthage with its canon is maybe not as important as it looks. Anyway, this is a thing we should all know. What happened instead was an unofficial growing consensus that manifested itself over centuries through the guidance of the Holy Spirit so that the 397 canon of Scripture was not controversial, nor was Athanasius’ in 367, nor would that of Innocent I be in the early 400s. This is very brief and not meant to be a historical investigation of the question of how or when the NT canon settled; please don’t troll me, I’m never in the mood.

What I want to say is: If these people were attuned to the Holy Spirit and filled with His grace to be able to discern between the inspired revelation of God and everything else (however valuable to the church’s life), shouldn’t we pay attention to what they have to say on other subjects?

2. The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity

The ancient church fathers articulated with ever greater precision and beauty the doctrine of the Most Holy and Life-giving Trinity, finding a way to use human words that is both biblically faithful and philosophically sound. Read their writings on the Trinity, such as St Gregory of Nazianzus’ Five Theological Orations.

If you believe the Trinity is an essential doctrine for Christian orthodoxy, doesn’t it make sense to get to know it from the people who had to think through these dangerous new waters?

Moreover, reading the ancient theologians on the Trinity, not only does your appreciation for this doctrine grow, so does your love and awe of God. You want to praise and worship so wonderful a Persons as these.

Furthermore, the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are still out there, alongside Oneness Pentecostals, Christadelphians, and Richard Rohr. The beauty, elegance, and logic of these teachings, coupled with their biblical fidelity will help you navigate any future encounters with such as these. I enjoy bringing up St Athansius with Jehovah’s Witnesses, myself.

3. The Person and Work of Jesus

Alongside the Most Holy Trinity, the ancient church thought through what it believed about the person and work of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the God-man, who trampled down death by death. If you believe that Jesus Christ is one person who is at once fully human and fully divine, why not read the writings of the people who articulated this belief and wrestled with how to phrase it? Why not go and read the Chalcedonian definition of the faith right now?

Again, knowing how and why the church has come to its belief in Jesus Christ as one person existing in two natures, fully human and fully divine, will help you with Mormons, Richard Rohr, et al., but it will — once again — also bring you to your knees in worship of Christ Our God who was crucified for us.

Furthermore, maybe Brian D. McLaren and others who say that penal substitutionary atonement theory is ‘divine child abuse’ are getting to you — not necessarily that they annoy you, but that you fear they are right. Well, let me tell you something about ancient views on the atonement: None of them is penal subistitutionary atonement, for this was not articulated until the masterful work of St Anselm, Cur Deus Homo (c. 1100). Being a catholic Anglican, I agree with Anselm, but since I increasingly lean East, I also see that this is not the only way to view the atonement, which is an act of God like a diamond, casting forth different colours in different directions depending on the light.

What you will find is a central home for the cross (crucicentrism being integral to evangelical identity) alongside an embiggening of your vision to see that the Incarnation is a Big Deal, that when God answered the prophet’s call to rend the heavens and come down (Isa. 64:1), nothing could ever be the same. If atonement is an issue for you, the Fathers will bring you to your knees in worship of the suffering immortal God.

One of the Most Holy Trinity was crucified and died for us. Hallelujah!

4. Spiritual Disciplines

You read the New Testament. You believe in the Trinity and the two natures of Christ as well as his atoning work on the Cross. These are great reasons to get to know the Fathers. And as you get to know them, you’ll realise that they inhabited a world without the distractions of Twitter, Facebook, Game of ThronesAvengers films, or the Kardashians. They did, however, inhabit a world with the distractions of chariot races, imperial pomp, occasional persecutions, the theatre, gladiatorial combats, brothels, singing competitions, banquets, and more.

And you’ll find that many of them kept themselves grounded through spiritual disciplines.

Many of us have found (stereo)typical evangelical piety and pietism shallow. We want to love God more and go deeper and see real transformation in our lives. So did the Fathers. And they took to hear the exhortations to pray without ceasing and to love one another and to care for the poor and oppressed.

If you take seriously what they believed, shouldn’t you take seriously how they lived?

These are just the four that came to me tonight. What reasons do you have for reading the Fathers?

What did Constantine actually do?

Statue of Constantine in front of York Minster

Today, for the second and final time this season, I volunteered at Edinburgh’s Christian Heritage Centre. I was talking with a lovely and interested couple from New Orleans about the religious history of Scotland, including lovely things like the pulpit at St Columba’s, and less lovely things, like killing of Covenanters.

I knew the woman was not necessarily in step with my vision of Christian history when she remarked, upon seeing that Columba (saint of the week here) had been given the isle of Iona, that that was where Mary Magdalene and her children fled when people were trying to kill them, ‘according to the legends.’ I said that such would have been news to Columba, who was the first Christian on the island in recorded history when it was given to him as a mission base by King Bridei of the Picts upon Bridei’s conversion.

Later, after they had viewed the entire display, we chatted in the sanctuary of S Columba’s. In the midst of a very interesting conversation, this lovely woman unloaded the shattering idea that Constantine (saint of the week here) ruined everything. He wanted the union of Church and State, and he said Jesus was God, and he set the canon of the New Testament, burning the other texts.

I said, ‘Constantine didn’t set the canon of Scripture.’

She gave me that knowing look people who don’t know Church History give me, saying, ‘Yes, he did.’

‘Well, it’s not in Eusebius.’

‘Who’s Eusebius?’

‘He’s –‘

‘What about all those other things, like the Dead Sea Scrolls?’

‘The Dead Sea Scrolls are Hebrew; they’re Jewish texts, not Christian. The Gnostic texts at Nag Hammadi are all in Coptic and very late. The canon of Scripture was already basically determined by Constantine’s day. The disputes at Nicaea were not between Gnostics and the Orthodox; they were disputes within the community of the ‘proto-orthodox’.’

That last bit probably didn’t help. What I meant was….

Well, we need the swirl of disinformation sorted out first. From what this lady was saying, I think the swirl is as follows. Jesus and Mary M were married and got it on big time. The so-called ‘Gnostics’ knew this, but the ‘proto-orthodox’ suppressed it to give more power to celibate bishops. The Gnostics represent the true stream of Christianity, and they did not believe that Jesus was truly ‘God’ the way we think of God, the Creator. This idea was something thought up by Constantine when he united Church and State, and called the council of Nicaea to make it official. At Nicaea he burnt the Gnostic scriptures.

I think this is part of what is going on. I think this mostly originates from Dan Brown and books like The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. Whenever you challenge people on this, they tell you that you believe the official version and have had the wool pulled over your eyes.

But here we go, anyway. Disbelieve me if you wish.

First: The Canon of Scripture. This was established slowly over a long period of time. By Irenaeus’ day, we have the fourfold Gospel. Since most of the documents people such as the Jesus Seminars and Elaine Pagels are trying to foist upon us qualify at some level as ‘Gospels’, by the mid- to late second century, the Gnostic Gospels have been excluded by certain groups, such as those represented by Irenaeus, already. This trend seems to continue throughout the third century, visible in the earliest papyri and New Testament quotations in pre-Constantinian Fathers. Nowhere in any of the sparse documents relating to Nicaea do they establish the canon of Scripture.

This is because the people there all agreed on that. This was the problem. The people at Nicaea are the descendants of the people in the Gnostic debates we would think of as ‘proto-orthodox’ or ‘catholic’ — the theological descendants of Irenaeus, Justin, Clement, Origen. They just happen to disagree on a particular point; it is an in-house debate. The Gnostics and their writings do not figure into the Nicene debate at all. Arius and those who agreed with him were interpreting the same set of documents as Athanasius and those who agreed with him.

Constantine made everyone agree to the creed of Nicaea, but may not have even agreed with it himself. His deathbed baptism was at the hands of an ‘Arian’, Eusebius of Nicomedia. And his biography is given us by someone else who sympathises with the ‘Arian’ party in many ways, Eusebius of Caesarea. The Nicene victory does not actually come until 381, under Theodosius I with the theologising of the Cappadocians. Given the failure of other imperial attempts to establish their orthodoxy in the events beginning with Nestorius in 428 and leading to Chalcedon, the Henotikon, the Acacian Schism, Constantinople II, monothelitism, Constantinople III, and an enormous schism in eastern Christianity — I would wager that people actually agreed with the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (my translation here).

This leaves Jesus as God. The idea is certainly not Constantine’s, and certainly pre-dates him. It is visible in varying forms and levels of intensity as early as the Gospel of John, and in Irenaeus and Melito of Sardis and Clement of Alexandria and Origen Tertullian and probably others I’ve not read, as well as Alexander of Alexandria, whose shock at Arius’ response was the trigger to it all. It is not an idea nobody believed, and, as noted above, was not exactly foisted upon everyone else. Indeed, Athanasius’ intensity for his belief in his version of ‘Jesus is God’ got him in trouble during Constantine’s reign.

This leaves Constantine’s alleged union of Church and State. The shortest response is, Why would an Emperor want to unite the Roman state with a persecuted minority? Yes, Constantine — for whatever reasons — converted. It seems to have worked well for him. But converting back to paganism would later work for Emperor Julian. The church was neither wealthy nor powerful. Furthermore, outside of getting people to sign on to Nicaea, its workings seem to have been left alone by Constantine. Any of his interventions, such as between ‘Catholics’ and Donatists in the West, were done at the invitation of the Church, and done as a last ditch attempt to make things work. Furthermore, in the 200s, at least one Christian community appealed to a pagan emperor against their bishop.

Furthermore, all of the state ceremonial and cult persisted during Constantine’s reign. And paganism was not outlawed for decades, and even then seems to have continued well into the reign of Justinian two hundred years later.

Whatever Constantine may have screwed up, he did not ‘decide’ Jesus was God, he did not unite Church and state, and he did not touch the Gnostic gospels at all. If we wish to vilify the man, find the right reasons — murdering his son and wife, for example.