Why we should all have a healthy interest in the history of Christianity

“The story of Christianity is not merely the story of a religion indigenous to Western civilization; in a very real sense, it is the story of that civilization itself. One cannot really understand the values that inform those cultures that were originally conceived in the womb of Christendom without understanding the faith that created them. Even in nations where an explicit devotion to Christian faith is on the wane, the Christian understanding of what it is to be human continues to shape imaginations and desires at the profoundest levels, and to determine much of what we hold most dear and many of the moral expectations we have of ourselves and others. For this reason alone, the story of Christianity is one we should all wish to know better.” -David Bentley Hart, The Story of Christianity

Time to dig into church history — this field should be booming!

If you’re going to dislike Zosimus, find a reason beyond, ‘He was Pope, dude!’

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.

The size and importance of Christian history

IMG_0022
St Bernard, c. 1450, in Musée de Cluny, Paris. My photo

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.

Geography of the Church Fathers

Roman Empire in Late Antiquity

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!

West

Gaul

  • 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)

Italy

  • 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)

North Africa

  • Tertullian (Carthage; Latin)
  • Minucius Felix (Latin)
  • Commodian (Latin)
  • Cyprian of Carthage (Latin)
  • Arnobius (Latin)
  • Lactantius (fl. in court of Constantine; Latin)
  • Augustine of Hippo (Latin)

East

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)
  • Socrates of Constantinople (Greek)

Asia Minor

  • Polycarp (Smyrna; Greek)
  • Papias (Hierapolis, Phrygia; Greek)
  • Gregory Thaumaturgus (Neocaesarea; Greek)
  • Basil of Caesarea (Greek)
  • Gregory of Nazianzus (Greek)
  • Gregory of Nyssa (Greek)

Egypt

  • “Barnabas” (Alexandria; Greek)
  • Clement of Alexandria (Greek)
  • Origen of Alexandria (Greek)
  • Dionysius of Alexandria (Greek)
  • Julius Africanus (Greek)
  • Anatolius of Alexandria (Greek)

Syria-Palestine

  • Ignatius of Antioch (d. at Rome; Greek)
  • Tatian (fl. at Rome; Greek)
  • Theophilus of Antioch (Greek)
  • Eusebius of Caesarea (Greek)
  • Cyril of Jerusalem (Greek)
  • Ephraim the Syrian (Nisibis-Edessa; Syriac)
  • John Chrysostom (Antioch, Constantinople; Greek)
  • Sozomenus (Greek)
  • Theodoret of Cyrrhus (Greek)
  • John of Damascus (Greek)

Mesopotamia

  • Aphrahat the Persian (Syriac)

Unknown

  • Author of Epistle to Diognetus

Concluding thoughts on messy Christian history after Constantine

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

Painted Cast of Prima Porta Augustus, Ashmolean Museum
Painted Cast of Prima Porta Augustus, Ashmolean Museum

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.

Notre-dame de Paris
Notre-dame de Paris

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.

A Flemish Gothic altarpiece (Musée nationale du Moyen-Age, Paris)
A Flemish Gothic altarpiece (Musée nationale du Moyen-Age, Paris)

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.

The Pains

Charlemagne, not that he had a beard in real life (Paris, Parvis de Notre-Dame)
Charlemagne, not that he had a beard in real life (Paris, Parvis de Notre-Dame)

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.

Part One is here. Part 2a is about the Late Antique targets for the regularisation of official orthodoxy; Part 2b is about the mediaeval targets. Part 3 is about the orthodox targets of official Christianity. Part 4 is about the Inquisition. I also wrote an excursus on the Synod of Whitby in 664.

Zeal: Hillsong, Bede, and Me

Worship at Hillsong Paris

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.

Opening of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History

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?

Saint of the Week: St. Spyridon

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.

Saint of the Week: St. Thomas the Apostle

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.

Saint of the Week: Constantine the Great

Constantine (272-337; r. 307-337) was the first Roman Emperor to adopt Christianity.  As an Emperor, he seems very little different from his predecessors — a violent war-monger who sought supreme power for himself, engaged in great building projects, regulated the life of the Roman Empire, executed family members, was involved in various palace and political intrigues, and so on and so forth.  Adrian Goldsworthy, in his recent book The Fall Of The West, says that Constantine ruled in a manner so similar to Diocletian (r. 284-305) that it is often difficult to determine who instituted which reforms.

Furthermore, Constantine’s tolerance for Christianity is not as outstanding as many, especially his panegyrists such as Eusebius, would like us to think.  The third century was not a time of rife persecution from all emperors, but often had many emperors who tolerated Christianity, with one even giving formal acknowledgement of the protection of Christians.

Unlike his predecessors, Constantine was actually a Christian.  Before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (312) which he fought against his rival Maxentius, he had a dream saying, “In this, conquer,” indicating to him the labarum, or chi-rho sign — or possibly that of a cross with the top curved to look like a rho (which looks like a P).  Having painted the labarum on his soldiers’ shields, he won the Milvian Bridge and credited his victory to the Christian god.  Many Roman Emperors credited their victories to specific gods, so as yet this was still not excessively remarkable.

However, Constantine’s attachment to the Christian God was to grow throughout his reign.  Christianity gained imperial favour, which resulted in new public church buildings designed in the style of the Roman basilica, the place for public meeting, law, and business.  Included amongst these were the original St. Peter’s on Vatican Hill, St. John’s Lateran, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem where his mother, St. Helena, went on pilgrimage.  The Church was also returned her property which had been confiscated during the Diocletianic Persecution.

Our English word emperor comes from the Latin imperator, which was used by Rome’s leading citizen from Augustus in 27 BC to Romulus Augustulus in AD 476.  The imperator was the supreme commander of Rome’s armies.  He organised the legions and the navy.  He planned campaigns against Rome’s enemies.  He looked after the welfare of the State in a very physical, tangible sense.  In Senatorial Rome, the military and the political and the administrative were never entirely divorced.  The imperator was a great organiser of men.

What an imperator such as Constinatine really needed was to ensure the Pax Romana — the “Roman Peace” instituted by Augustus which had suffered greatly in the previous century through a great deal of internal turmoil which beckoned a number of external threats (chiefly Germanic or Persian).  Part of this was instilling unity throughout the Empire, something attempted by Diocletian through an ill-fated price-fixing law.  Constantine did this through the army, and he sought to do it to the Church.

Thus, Constantine called the ever-famous Council of Nicaea in 324 (for more on this, read my fictionalised Nicene Sketches).  He was no theologian, and he knew it.  What he wanted was for the Church to sort herself out and become a unified force within a unified Empire.  Thus, the problems posed by Arius and his supporters needed to be dealt with.  If we look at the letters from Constantine to Arius and the involved bishops, his chief accusation against Arius was not doctrinal but that Arius was stirring things up and not submitting to his bishop.

Nicaea set the stage for the future Ecumenical Councils that helped the Church clarify her thought on certain foundational questions of theology, the person of Christ, and the Holy Trinity.  It also set a dangerous precedent for future emperors to meddle where warriors and politicians do not belong.

Constantine also established the city of Constantinople at Byzantium on the Bosporus (modern Istanbul) which later became the capital of the Eastern Empire when Rome’s power divided.  This city has largely been rumoured to have been free from pagan influences under the new Christian emperor.  Such is not the case; many pre-existing temples were retained, and Constantine even commissioned a naked statue of himself as Sol Invictus — the Unconquered Sun — atop a column.  Constantine’s conversion, even in the late 320’s and 330’s, was not sudden but gradual.  And, despite the occasional syncretistic blending of Sol Invictus and YHWH (the former also makes his way onto coinage), Constantinople was still overwhelmingly Christian, no doubt part of Constantine’s vision for himself as starting grand, new things, not because he had any antipathy towards paganism; as a ruler, he allowed pluralist paganism to continue and even received appeals from pagan cults.

Although Constantine’s conversion to Christianity was not a massive revolution in his religious life, it was real.  There was probably an element of political manoeuvring, probably also an element of superstition following the Milvian Bridge, but also undoubtedly sincere trust in the God of the Christians.  From 312 to 337, this faith was nurtured and informed by the Christians around Constantine.

He was baptised near the end of his life, the result of some concern over whether or not post-baptism sins could be forgiven — a concern that was real at this time in ancient Christianity.  He reposed on May 22, 337 and was buried in a grand mausoleum in Constantinople, surrounded by images of the Twelve Apostles.

He may not be the “Thirteenth Apostle” as some style him, but he was, in my opinion, a sincere believer who had a large impact upon the Church in his lifetime and beyond.  His impact did not affect the doctrine of the Church — Nicaea merely forced the bishops to get together in one room and come to a decision, and that decision was even questioned and overthrown after Constantine’s death.  He did not affect the organisation of the Church’s threefold ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons.  He did not affect the liturgy of the Church.  His basilicas did not change too much — Christians were already gathering in large buildings by this time, although most of them were converted homes.

What Constantine did bring about was the thrusting of the Church into public life.  This had both good and bad affects.  Among the good were a greater ability to freely evangelise the 90 to 60 percent of the Empire’s population who still held to the traditional religions.  It meant greater ease of organisation, which meant a greater ability to deal with heretics, schismatics, and people who were just plain weird (ie. men who castrated themselves in the pursuit of holiness).  It meant that the Church could become a more dramatic patron of the arts and a more lavish helper of the poor.  All of these things the Church was already — now she was in a position to have even greater influence for the good of the people of the Roman Empire, thanks to Constantine and his conversion.

Saint of the Week: Dante Alighieri, Supreme Poet of Italy

The Salutation of Beatrice by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Throughout Christian history, two ways of living, praying, meditating have co-existed, generally peacefully.  One of these ways is the Way of Negation, the way of denial, of asceticism, of apophatic theology (to describe God only by what He isn’t).  The other is the Way of Affirmation (or something — apologies if I’m wrong; correct me in the comments!), the way of joyful living, of cataphatic theology (to describe God by the attributes revealed in Scripture & reasoned from the universe).  Both are needed, I believe, and most of us fall a little bit in each.

The latter type of believer includes such luminaries as C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton, the other has St. Antony and Dionysius the Areopagite.  In his masterful history of the Spirit at work in the Church, The Descent of the Dove, Charles Williams places Dante Alighieri (c. 1265-1321) amongst those who tread the Way of Affirmation.

Dante lived bountifully.  In La Vita Nuova we do see a little bit more swooning than would be appropriate in our culture or even in actual 13th-century Florence.  However, this swooning was because he was grasping life so fully, not denying what was there in Beatrice and thus living the earthly life given by Almighty God to its very fullest extent.

He is best known, however, not for swooning over Beatrice, but for La Divina Commedia, The Divine Comedy, a work in three volumes: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso.*  The first volume is the only I have yet to read; we begin with Dante’s journeys in Hell, right to Satan’s belly, with Virgil as guide.  Thence Virgil takes him to Purgatory; my friend Andrew finds Purgatory quite amusing — it is rumoured to be the most original of the three.  And Beatrice leads him through Paradise.

I know people who are obsessed with being lame, so they say things like, “Dante’s Inferno is just a really long version of Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid.“**  Yes, Dante reworks a lot of Virgil’s material.  But he does it in a thoroughly Christian, thoroughly Mediaeval way (since neither the Renaissance nor Florentine Renaissance actually happened [along with the “Dark Ages”], Dante is pure Mediaeval awesomeness).  Dante’s Hell is not simply the place where the wicked are punished in various curious ways.

It is you.

Yes, you are Dante’s Hell.  Don’t worry — you’re also Purgatory and Paradise.  A Christian story is not simply beautiful, but beauty that points to Truth.  And the Truth we see in Hell is the embodiment of all of our sins, from pettiness to treason.  The Inferno is an unveiling of the messy, unpleasant business we call “fallenness.”  Do what you will with Genesis 2-3 — there may be funnier, more “life-affirming” creation stories out there*** — but it relates a basic truth about our lives.  We are all screwed up.  We all have Hell within.

If all Dante did was moan about Hell and how to avoid it, then he would fall firmly in the category of “The Way of Negation.”  But he moves on from Hell, to Purgatory and, ultimately, Paradise.  We have these places in us as well.  Made in the Image of the Living God, there is glory and beauty in the human race.  We are not designed to wallow in the filth of our own sin.  We are designed for the glory and beauty of Paradise, accessed through the work of Purgatory.

Thus, the Divine Comedy.  If this were all Dante Alighieri had written, he would deserve an account in every Church History textbook.  However, he was also a great scholar and populariser of the vernacular, as in De Vulgari Eloquentia (in Latin here).  He also got entangled in local politics, getting himself exiled.  Finally, he was a Third Order Franciscan (and we all know my love for St. Francis) — indeed, if we count Dante among the Great Franciscans, St. Francis died in 1226, St. Bonaventure lived from 1221 to 1274, and Dante was born in 1265.  They all overlapped and all have had a powerful impact upon the thoughtlife of the Christian world.

So read a little Dante today, for there you will find a man plugged into the Fountain of Life.  There you will find a man thoroughly engrossed in the world of his day — political, intellectual, poetic — yet who did not lose sight of the one God worthy of praise.

*In Dorothy L. Sayers’ translations for Penguin, that would be Hell, Purgatory, Paradise.

**This is the lame sort of person who can see nothing but political propaganda in the Aeneid.

***The Blackfoot one related by Tomson Highway in “Why Cree is the Funniest of All Languages,” (in Me Funny ed. Drew Hayden Taylor) is certainly funnier.