Monday, May 12, 2008

AD 381

AD 381: Heretics, Pagans, And The Christian State recounts how the Emperor Theodosius declared the Trinity to be the one true understanding of God's nature and all others to be heretical, and argues that this policy, aimed at uniting the Christian church, closed the door on intellectual freedom for centuries to come.

As a non-trinitarian Christian, I am interested in how the Nicene view became the predominant one and I found of a lot of interest in this book. We learn of the conflicts within the church and how the granting of judicial authority was used and abused by bishops in their attempts to gain dominance over one another and in their efforts to abolish paganism. In the half century between Constantine and Theodosius the church had become a powerful arm of the state, but it was an arm that was hampered by its sometimes violent factionalism. Theodosius broke from earlier emperors by throwing the weight of the state behind a specific doctrine, empowering its proponents to denounce as heretics anyone who didn't accept it.

There is some interesting stuff here, but Freeman brings with him some ideas that simply don't stand up to criticism. He holds to some misconceptions about early Christianity that are common among academics; at one point, for example, he writes that Jews would never accept the idea that a man became God, when the Church has always taught the exact opposite, the God took the form of a man. He also makes claims I haven't come across before. He writes that Paul wasn't a influential figure in the Church until the fourth century, in spite of the fact that his letters had been widely circulated since the first century and have made up a significant part of the New Testament canon form the earliest efforts to form one. He also tries to tie Paul to the Essenes, though he admits there is 'no direct connection'. In fact, Paul was a Pharisee and, unlike the Gospel writers, was quite proud of that connection.

But the main problem with the book is Freeman's primary premise. According to it, the classical period was one of the free expression of ideas, a period that came to an end with the decree of Theodosius. It is certainly true that the fallout from the decree had serious consequences for the future of intellectual speculation, but so did many things. As Freeman acknowledges in the book, the decline of the Western Empire meant the loss of the social infrastructure needed to support classical learning, but he tries to lay much of the responsibility for its resulting absence on Augustine's shoulders, arguing that the theologians disdain for the natural sciences was a primary reason. But the biggest problem with the thesis isn't what happened afterward Theodosius, but before Constantine. His Edict of Toleration ended the persecution of the Church and ushered in a fifty year period of free intellectual discussion. According to Freeman, this meant that Christians were now free to partake in a tradition of free speech that was the norm in the Classical world. There are a lot facts that stand in the way of this idea. Freeman acknowledges that Christians were persecuted at time, though only, he asserts, when the Empire felt threatened, and he admits that Socrates was killed by a "mob" (p.31). But that's not what happened. Socrates wasn't killed by a mob; he was tried before the citizens of Athens and killed for encouraging impiety. And Rome's persecution of minorities went well beyond killing Christians when it felt threatened. In fact, it went well beyond killing Christians at all. Jews and many pagans -- worshippers of Bacchus, Cybele, Isis, and Mithras -- all felt the persecution of the State at one time or another. In Rome you were fine as long as you went along with everyone else. Anyone who followed their own path was suspect and could face the same threats we normally associate with Christian persecution. So where is the tradition of free speech? Indeed, why would the Edict of Toleration be necessary if this tradition was a reality in the first place? A more realistic assertion would be that the period between Constantine and Theodosius represented a period in which neither the pagans nor Nicene Christians were dominant.

The book is strongest when it relates the development of the Church as a part of the Imperial state and it would have been stronger if the author had stuck to that and hadn't tried to make it carry it's questionable thesis as well.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the good review.