Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Church History

I have been reading The Story of Christianity by Justo L Gonzalez. It is about 40 years since I studied Church History formally, so I am enjoying the refresher.

I am currently up to the Arian Controversy that dominated much of the 4th century. I remembered this as a dispute about the divinity of Jesus, but Gonzalez brings out some interesting aspects of the issue.

The state soon began to use its power to force theological agreement upon Christians. Many of the dissident views that were thus crushed may indeed have threatened the grey core of the Christian message. Had it not been for imperial intervention, the issues would probably have been settled, as in earlier times, through long debate, and a consensus would eventually have been reached. But there were many rulers who did not wish to see such prolonged and indecisive controversies in the church, and who therefore be simply decided, on imperial authority, who was right and who should be silenced. As a result, many of those involved in controversy, rather than seeking to convince their opponents or the rest of the church sought to convince the emperors. Eventually, theological debate was eclipsed by political intrigue (p.182).
Unfortunately, because successive emperors took different sides, the Arian controversy dragged on through of the century.

Gonzalez also explains that the controversy was partly a social/political class issue.

For fifty years, most of the emperors were embraced the Arian position... What was at stake was much more than idle speculation. Ultimately the issue was, can Gold truly be present in a carpenter executed by the empire as a criminal, or is God more like the emperor on his throne? One should not wonder, then, that so many emperors preferred the Arian view. Eventually a compromise was reached whereby the carpenter was declared to be truly divine, but was now represented much more often by the exalted Pantokrator—the exalted emperor sitting on a throne and ruling the entire world—than as a carpenter (p.217).
I was intrigued that the thinkers who pushed the church towards the truth often came from the edge of the church, mostly from within the monastic movement. Most were made bishops, but it was against their will. They were often persecuted and had to flee the centres of religious power for safety.

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