Back in 2010, my now PhD supervisor remarked that as confessional entrenchment/denominational attachment has decreased, so has interest in ecclesiastical history (is this one reason we rebranded ourselves here as History of Christianity?). I’m not sure if this is true or if it was simply a feeling she had, but if it is true, I’m not so sure it makes a lot of sense.
I think that church history as a field of study can truly blossom with lessened denominational hostilities. This thought came to me today while reading about this guy Apiarius of Sicca Veneria in North Africa. Briefly, he was a presbyter who was removed from holy orders by his local bishop and decided to appeal to Rome. Pope Zosimus got involved and — well, ecclesiastical history. An important moment in western canon law, despite how little attention it tends to receive.
The book I was reading, Merdinger’s Rome and the African Church in the Time of Augustine (complaint: Why always Augustine?), observed that this issue has been misread and obscured by a lot of scholarship because of the confessional commitments of the scholars discussing it. A crude caricature of the scholarship in this case is pretty much the same as it always is whenever the popes get involved:
Catholics: Well done Popes exercising your apostolic authority against those rebellious Africans.
Protestants: Well done Africans in resisting the arrogant self-aggrandisement of the Popes.
This is also not far from every time the Bishop of Rome butts heads with orthodox Eastern Bishops, Gallic bishops, Sicilian bishops, Spanish bishops, Welsh and Irish bishops, and so forth. The pope and/or his representatives or those who at least side with him are pictured by Catholics as representing good order and good government, putting right the wrongs of the world, and by Protestants as representing the arrogation of worldly power and the stamping out of true Gospel spirit in the provinces.
Sometimes one side has more of the truth than the other, but it’s not really what’s usually going on.
With weakened, once-ingrained confessional prejudices clouding our vision less, we are in a time when scholarship about ecclesiastical history can really flourish. No longer need Catholics be embarrassed by badly behaved popes to sweep under the rug. No longer need Protestants hunt for some sort of proto-Protestant resistance. No longer need Protestants ignore the entire history of the church from the death of Augustine to 31 October, 1517 — nor need they ignore the awkward Catholicky (emphasis on ‘icky’) bits from before the 430 cut-off date, where church fathers whose Christology and triadology, and even beliefs about salvation, they praise also do awkward things like, well, exercise monarchical episcopal authority in their hometown. Or send people relics. Or talk about Eucharist in terms of sacrifice. Or have anything to do with canon law. Or burn incense.*
Also, we can lay off the anti-papal polemic. Gregory the Great sent missionaries to England because he thought London would become a rival patriarchate? Really?
And we can turn our eyes to the world beyond Europe and the Mediterranean basin. Since we no longer feel compelled to obsess over our own Roman Catholic, Methodist, Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran history, we can look at the history of the church in Mesopotamia or Ethiopia. We can ponder Franciscans in the Caliphate. We can take into consideration the Church of the East (‘Nestorian’) in China during the Middle Ages.
We have 2000 years of ecclesiastical history to play with. Just because something didn’t happen within one’s own confessional sphere of influence doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting and doesn’t mean it doesn’t hold wisdom for the church today.
*Fun fact: St John Chrysostom whose exegesis is much beloved by low-church evangelicals of late did all these things.
Part of learning what I call ‘Classic Christianity’ as a means towards rejuvenating your spiritual life is discovering not only the theology and worship and devotional practices of the past but also learning the story of Christian history. A few months ago, I was struck by how much of it there is, and why, therefore, this is an important field of study and reflection for the thoughtful Christian.
It all started with Prosper of Aquitaine’s Chronicle. At one point he stops to take count of the time since various events, such as from Creation, Abraham, Jesus, that sort of thing. And the time from Abraham to the Incarnation of the Lord is about 2000 years.
Most of the Old Testament, except for the very beginning of Genesis, takes place in those 2000 years. And all of it was written in those 2000 years. The Old Testament is the telling of the faithfulness of God towards his chosen people and the revealing of his character through his interaction with human history, whether through prophets, poets, priests, or kings.
We are now 2000 years the other side of Jesus Christ. We and Abraham, who is the beginning of the Covenant, are the same distance from the Saviour temporally. This is worth thinking about if you believe that the God of Christianity who is present here today is the same God as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
We have 2000 years of the history of God with his people up to the coming of Christ. He has not abandoned that people. And if he is the same sort of God, who made himself known from Abraham to the Apostles, he will probably be acting in the same sort of ways (unless you’re a specific type of Dispensationalist, I guess).
This means that Christian history is not simply the record of A-Z, how we got from Jesus to Pope Francis and Billy Graham. While the writing of it is not Scripture and therefore not revelatory in the same way, it is still the story of God’s faithfulness to his people.
A careful, reasonable, yet prayerful reading of Christian history is a way of accessing the story of God and His people. Learning the stories of the saints and theologians and councils and heretics and attempts at reform and monastic foundations and so on and so forth is a way of learning how God has acted and still acts today.
I hope, therefore, that you will take an interest in the stories of the Church, from the martyrs like Sts Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna to the mystics like Sts Hildegard von Bingen and Gregory Palamas, to the reformers like Martin Luther and Thomas Cranmer, to missionaries like St Patrick and Bruchko (Bruce Olsen). Their stories will show us the living God who is still here, who has always been here, who will stay with us forever.
Last night, it popped into my head to provide a list of the major Church Fathers by geography. One of the interesting things this list highlights is that East-West is not always a Greek-Latin division; Rome in particular was producing Greek-speaking theologians through the third century. I provide ‘major’ Fathers from the Ante-Nicene and Nicene & Post-Nicene Fathers series region by region from West to East. They are provided in chronological order in each region. This choice does, alas, leave out Spain entirely despite Isidore of Seville, as well as many of the great ascetic writers of Egypt-Palestine-Syria. Nonetheless, it is a good sampling, and I have other things to attend to! Enjoy!
Irenaeus of Lyons (from Asia Minor; Greek)
Hilary of Poitiers (Latin)
Rufinus of Aquileia (Latin)
Sulpicius Severus (Aquitaine; Latin)
Vincent of Lérins (Latin)
John Cassian (fr. East, lived in Egypt before Gaul; Latin)
Clement of Rome (Greek)
Justin Martyr (from Palestine, fl. also in Asia Minor; Greek)
Hermas (Rome; Greek)
Hippolytus (Rome; Greek)
Gaius (Rome; Greek)
Novatian (Rome; Latin)
Dionysius (Rome; Greek)
Ambrose of Milan (Latin)
Leo the Great (Rome; Latin)
Gregory the Great (Rome; Latin)
Tertullian (Carthage; Latin)
Minucius Felix (Latin)
Cyprian of Carthage (Latin)
Lactantius (fl. in court of Constantine; Latin)
Augustine of Hippo (Latin)
Greece & the Balkans (incl. Thrace/Constantinople)
Athenagoras of Athens (Greek)
Methodius of Olympus (Greek)
Jerome (fr. Latin Dalmatia, spent time in Rome before settling in Bethlehem; Latin)
This is the final post in a series on the messy reality of church history after Constantine wherein I have tackled both those who decry ‘Constantinianism’ for ‘polluting’ a ‘pure’ church and those who believe the conversion of Constantine was the greatest thing ever to happen. The other posts are listed at the bottom of this one.
And what, after all this, do I think about church life after Constantine?
I think that relations between the Church/Christianity and the secular government have always, before Constantine and after, a mixture of pleasures and pains.
The Post-Constantinian Pleasures
Legal existence and imperial favour are not always bad things! Christians could now meet freely and evangelise freely. They could expand the houses-turned-churches. They could publically build more purpose-built houses of worship (meeting in houses isn’t some sort of pristine vision for Christianity but a necessity for the persecuted).
Christians could now more easily pursue careers in the public service. Sure, this sometimes meant compromise. But it also sometimes meant finally giving Roman government a conscience when it came to things like disaster relief and aid for the poor (beyond Rome’s pomerium).
Indeed, giving government something of a conscience is probably one of the greatest benefits of the cozy relationship Christians now had with Rome and, later, her successor states and other non-Roman Christian polities throughout history. Christians with access to persons of power, who sometimes were persons of power, and access to wealth could provide their nations with hospitals and houses for the poor and lepers.
Because the monastic movement in all Christian societies had some level of official sanction by the Early Middle Ages (if not earlier), monasteries/lavrae/hermitages/priories/anchorholds became alternative ways of living beyond the secular world of warrior masculinity and domestic feminity, of survival for the poor beyond subsistence farming, of, indeed, places for the otherwise voiceless to be heard — think of the monastic women such as St Hildegard von Bingen who had the ear of powerful men or male monastics of humble origin such as St Bonaventure. The monastic movement was also a legitimised counterculture for young men otherwise destined for earthly power and glory, such as St Francis of Assisi.
Another source of great fecundity in the relationship between the imperia and the church was artistic culture. I cannot stand in Notre-Dame de Paris or St-Denis or Milan’s Duomo or Sant’Ambrogio in Milan or St Paul’s in London or Glasgow Cathedral and say, ‘What a shame the Church teamed up with the secular powers in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.’ This legimation of Christianity in secular eyes has meant the preservation of our faith’s art. I am, as I write, listening to St Hildegard’s music; could this beauty have survived so intact if produced by a hounded, persecuted minority?
My research literally delves into the world of the mediaeval book. Canon law tomes are not, it is to be admitted, the most beautiful. But I wouldn’t want to live in a world where the Kingdom of Northumbria did not foster monasticism to allow the Lindisfarne Gospels, or the Kingdom of the Picts likewise with Iona and the Book of Kells, or the Carolingians likewise and the over 7000 manuscripts that exist from their century and a half, two centuries, alone — most of them driven by the desire of the Carolingian monarchs to reform their society and church around the Christian Gospel.
Think: Michelangelo. El Greco. Hieronymous Bosch. Da Vinci. Fra Angelico. Pre-Raphaelites. Raphael. Bernini. Or: Late mediaeval Flemish altarpieces. Stained glass. San Vitale’s mosaics.
A lot of Christian writings would not have survived, if they’d even been written. What would we do without the City of God? Dante’s Divine Comedy? What if Pseudo-Dionysius’ works had all perished? Life without John Donne? Would someone like Gregory Palamas, so dense and hard to comprehend, have made the cut? Would Bernard of Clairvaux have gone into religious life with no monasteries for third sons? No Bede?
Without Constantine (or someone like him) — none of this culture.
That would be a lesser world, wouldn’t it?
There have been pleasures and benefits for Christianity and the imperium, real, substantive benefits. We cannot deny this.
But befriending the Emperor is kind of like befriending Two Face, isn’t it? For example, I’m in favour of St Boniface’s evangelising zeal. The early Carolingians supported his mission to bring Gospel and order to what is now Germany. But Charlemagne’s version of mission involved the forced conversion of Saxons whose options were baptism or death.
In Notker’s Life of Charlemagne we read of how Charlemagne induced Danish Vikings to get baptised by giving them gifts. One year, so many came they didn’t have enough white baptismal robes, and one Viking complained that his robe was shabbier than the one he’d got the year before! He protested the Charlemagne was getting stingy.
What does baptism even mean to that Viking or to the Saxons bathing before the Frankish sword?
Charlemagne is not the only ruler to evangelise by the sword. Both King Olaf Tryggvason (d. 1000) and King St Olaf Haraldsson (d. 1030) used this method to evangelise Norway. And, if Njal’s Saga has anything to say, the Olaf-sponsored missionary Thangbrand was not afraid of using violence to promote Christianity in Iceland.
It is said that in Latvia when the king converted he had everyone get baptised. They all went down to the river the next day to wash off their baptism.
The Christianisation of Europe, which brought with it a connection between the cultures of the North (from Iceland and Ireland to Estonia and Latvia to Russia) and the cultures of the classical Mediterranean, certainly tamed some aspects of life, although sometimes I wonder of some of the toning down of harsh aspects of law had more to do with Rome than with Jesus.
Mind you, sometimes Roman punishments and practices of law continued that Christians should have left behind, such as when Maximus the Confessor had his tongue cut out for espousing theology contrary to the imperial vision.
The Christianisation of Europe got a lot of people baptised. And many were sincere. But that was faith a mile wide and an inch deep. If these men were truly, deeply Christian, why did the Pope need to keep making up reasons to keep French nobility from killing each other? Why do Icelandic men keep the cycle of revenge, feud, honour killings, and the like after the conversion of the island in 1000? Why do people complain over and over and over again about the unholy, sinful behaviour of those on pilgrimage?
Finally, another problem arises when Europe starts meeting new people. The first priest in Canada is said to have uttered, ‘First these savages must be civilized, then they will be ready to receive the Gospel.’ An attitude that was hard to shake — for if everyone in Europe is a ‘Christian’, where does European end and Christian begin?
God never will never forsake us
In conclusion, however, I would like to state that God gigantic. He is bigger than Constantine, bigger than Quakers, bigger than Anglicanism, bigger than Charlemagne, bigger than bad missionaries, bigger than Gregory Palamas, bigger than the Great Schism, bigger than the Reformation, bigger than Icelandic sagas, bigger than everything good or bad the Church has done throughout history.
No matter how corrupt the institutions of the Church have become, and it has happened at different times and different places, God has remained faithful. And there have always been faithful Christians who are part of that Church, quietly going about holy lives or vivaciously calling for reform, whether Caesarius in 520, Boniface in 720, Francis in 1220, or Luther in 1520.
Whilst in Paris, I visited three churches for Sunday morning services. While Notre-Dame’s Messe Gregorienne would be most in keeping with the overall theme and tenor of this blog, the one that has got me thinking most was, of all things, Hillsong Paris.
Hillsong Paris is a plant of the famous Hillsong Church in Australia. It meets in a theatre thrice on a Sunday, and at least fills the 12:15 service. As one would expect the music is upbeat and loud, with a seemingly ‘professional’ quality to it. The musicians jumped around on the stage and ran and sang loudly. The songs were all in French save one, but the original English was projected at the bottom of the screen.
The Sunday I visited Hillsong Paris, Brian Houston, le pasteur principal of Hillsong was visiting from Australia. He gave the message with a very, very good interpreter who immediately fired off rapid-fire French after each of his sentences and even sought to mimic his gestures.
Say what you will about anything at Hillsong, Brian Houston is a man of passion. He has zeal for God and for seeing people come to a living, vibrant faith in the risen Jesus. As he preached about us seeking to find that glorious obsession which God has implanted into us, this passion, this zeal for God came through.
To be zealous you don’t have to be high-energy, of course. To have a passion for Christ and His mission you don’t have to be an electrifying speaker. But if you are high-energy, whatever it is that is your glorious obsession will be apparent to everyone around.
Whilst in Paris, I read from several books. I read most of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People during my Parisian month, and finished it a few days ago. If we wish to discuss zeal for the Lord and His mission, we need look no further than the tales of these early British bishops.
In Bede’s most famous work, the reader meets many of the big names from the Christianisation of early mediaeval Britain — Columba, Aidan, Wilfrid, Willibrord, Paulinus, Edwin, Oswald, Augustine, Germanus of Auxerre, Hild, Caedmon, Cuthbert, Benedict Biscop.
Most of these names are bishops. Augustine and other early bishops in southern England came over from the continent to bring the light of the Gospel to the ends of the world. They, and then their local successors such as Wilfrid and Cuthbert, laboured to see the English people receive the truth of Jesus and transform their world for the better. Joining these continental and English missionaries were the Irish, such as Columba and Aidan, approaching the island from the North and West.
Sometimes, due to the ire of a king, the missions would not go as planned. Thus Wilfrid found himself in exile for many years. Rather than sitting about moaning, he engaged in mission where he was, whether in England or Frisia. Sometimes, the kings helped the bishops, such as Edwin and Oswald. These men and women had a zeal for seeing the people of Britain — Anglo-Saxon and Pict — come to saving faith in Jesus.
But I? Where is my zeal for the Lord? Sure, I blog big. And I enjoy Christian literature such as Bede or Miroslav Volf or saints’ lives or Leo. But I go days and days without reading the Scriptures, without really praying. Church, regardless of denomination or preaching or ‘style of worship’ I find tiresome. Where is my zeal? And where can I get some?
I just returned from Cyprus, and one of the saints who figures largely in the church dedications of the island is St. Spyridon, one of the Fathers who made the journey to Nicaea in 325.
You can always tell St. Spyridon when you see him on a church wall (as on the exterior of St. Sozomen’s Church in Galata, Cyprus [my photo to the left]) because of his beehive hat. Spyridon was a literal shepherd before he became a spiritual shepherd (in Latin, that would be pastor). As a sign of his humble origins, he is always shown wearing this traditional Cypriot headgear.
The image to the left is from a large fresco of the Council of Nicaea (the whole thing is viewable here). It’s hard to tell because I didn’t have a good angle to take the photo (I took it from a good distance below the image), but Spyridon is pictured performing a miracle that tradition relates concerning his actions at Nicaea.
He is clutching in his fist a tile. Out of the top of the tile comes a flame, from the bottom drips water, and soil remains in his hand. This threefold nature of the tile was a refutation of Arius, showing how three things could share a single essence, an object lesson in the Holy Trinity.
Because what we have from the histories is brief, allow me to quote Socrates Scholasticus in full (from CCEL):
With respect to Spyridon, so great was his sanctity while a shepherd, that he was thought worthy of being made a Pastor of men: and having been assigned the bishopric of one of the cities in Cyprus named Trimithus, on account of his extreme humility he continued to feed his sheep during his incumbency of the bishopric. Many extraordinary things are related of him: I shall however record but one or two, lest I should seem to wander from my subject. Once about midnight, thieves having clandestinely entered his sheepfold attempted to carry off some of the sheep. But God who protected the shepherd preserved his sheep also; for the thieves were by an invisible power bound to the folds. At daybreak, when he came to the sheep and found the men with their hands tied behind them, he understood what was done: and after having prayed he liberated the thieves, earnestly admonishing and exhorting them to support themselves by honest labor, and not to take anything unjustly. He then gave them a ram, and sent them away, humorously adding, ‘that ye may not appear to have watched all night in vain.’ This is one of the miracles in connection with Spyridon. Another was of this kind. He had a virgin daughter named Irene, who was a partaker of her father’s piety. An acquaintance entrusted to her keeping an ornament of considerable value: she, to guard it more securely, hid what had been deposited with her in the ground, and not long afterwards died. Subsequently the owner of the property came to claim it; and not finding the virgin, he began an excited conversation with the father, at times accusing him of an attempt to defraud him, and then again beseeching him to restore the deposit. The old man, regarding this person’s loss as his own misfortune, went to the tomb of his daughter, and called upon God to show him before its proper season the promised resurrection. Nor was he disappointed in his hope: for the virgin again reviving appeared to her father, and having pointed out to him the spot where she had hidden the ornament, she once more departed. Such characters as these adorned the churches in the time of the emperor Constantine. These details I obtained from many inhabitants of Cyprus. I have also found a treatise composed in Latin by the presbyter Rufinus, from which I have collected these and some other things which will be hereafter adduced.
What I like about the story of St. Spyridon is the fact that he was made a presbyter for all the right reasons — it wasn’t because he had a clear singing voice for the liturgy, or because he was the only literate man in the village, or because he had the right educational credentials but because of holiness of life. He was so holy and had such spiritual authority that, although a simple shepherd, the people knew that he was the right man for the job.
This is a stark contrast with the lawyers and aristocrats who fill the clergy elsewhere in fourth century! It is a stark contrast to today where we are more concerned with one having the right training than we are with whether one is actually a spiritual leader. Perhaps seminaries and bishops should take the life of St. Spyridon to heart when they are seeking out and evaluating postulants for ordination. Imagine if we had a whole generation of clergy chosen for the holiness of their lives! We might even see spiritual fruit as a result!
Remember as well: God chooses the simple. Few of us are Origens — and he was branded a heretic post-mortem — but by the grace of Christ, many can be Spyridons.
Continuing in last week’s apostolic theme, let’s discuss St. Thomas now. The Gospel of John is the only Gospel in which Thomas turns up as more than a name in a list. The first occasion is John 11:16. Jesus is going to go to Judaea, where it is likely that the leaders will kill him. Thomas (called Didymus — which means “Twin”) demonstrates his zeal for the Lord, saying:
“Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
These words demonstrate that, regardless of how much Thomas understood at this stage of the game, he was committed to Jesus and to Jesus’ mission. He was willing to join Jesus on a life-threatening undertaking, willing to die with him. Such faith is impressive.
In John 20, Thomas turns up again in the famous “Doubting” Thomas story. When Jesus first appears to the disciples after the Resurrection, Thomas isn’t there. In the film The Gospel of John, we see Thomas at the market buying some food for the others. He says that he won’t believe it and that he would have to put his hand in Jesus’ wrists and side before he would believe.
This unbelief is no more remarkable than that of the other disciples when Mary Magdalene and the women tell them the same Resurrection story, so we ought to be more gentle on poor St. Thomas and his reputation.
Jesus appears again to them, and when Thomas sees Him, rather than touching the wounds (as I saw him do in the Chester Mystery Plays), immediately falls to Jesus’ feet and worships Him, saying, “My Lord and my God!”
This is an appropriate reaction.
Thomas was also present for Jesus’ appearance on the shore when he and several other disciples were fishing together as recounted on John 21. Given this tidbit of evidence, St. Thomas was likely a Galilean, and like Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John, was a fisherman.
And like Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John, Christ made Thomas a fisher of men.
With our Eurocentric view of Christianity, we tend to view the great spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire as being facilitated entirely by Roman sea-routes and roads and the widespread use of Greek as the common language of the Hellenistic world.
However, when we observe the pattern of movement in Acts, we see that the Apostles are not simply travelling throughout the Roman Empire, but are travelling throughout the Jewish Diaspora. The first place they would go in each city was the synagogue, and if there was no synagogue, they would find whatever Jews and God-fearers there were and preach to them the Good News of Jesus. Thus the Church spread beyond the borders of Rome to the diaspora in Mesopotamia and elsewhere.
Did you know that there is a Jewish diaspora in India?
According to Wikipedia, they arrived in Cochin, Kerala, about 2500 years ago and in Maharashtra 2100 years ago; others have arrived elsewhere more recently. According to tradition, St. Thomas arrived in India about 2000 years ago. Given the trade routes between the Eastern Mediterranean and India, such as from the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean or the Silk Road, it is entirely plausible for a Jewish person to have made his way there, probably enjoying the hospitality of his fellow Jews of the diaspora along the way.
According to the Acts of Thomas, once he was in India, St. Thomas went about preaching celibacy.
I know, right? You were probably thinking, “Jesus.” Or “Eternal life.” No. Celibacy. He shows up in the bedchamber of a royal wedding and convinces them to live together “chastely” rather than have sex. And somehow, this manages to convert the king and various other persons in India.
St. Thomas continued preaching in India and the Church was founded there. He ended up being martyred, no surprise if the Acts have anything to say about his method of evangelisation. This martyrdom was after he converted a king’s wife, and he was pierced with spears by four soldiers. Thus, the spear is part of his iconography.
In 1498 when the Portuguese showed up in India, they met Mar Thoma Christians who worshipped in Syriac and claimed descent from St. Thomas. Because of the various activities of Roman Catholic and Protestant (esp. Anglican) missions in India, the Mar Thoma Christians have become divided amongst themselves (yay western Christianity!). They are mainly in Kerala (notably where one of the Jewish diasporae is found in India).
His feast used to be December 21 (BCP), but is now on July 3 (BAS). Celebrate accordingly.