I love reading about history, especially church history. To me it is one of the most enjoyable and relaxing types of reading.
Candida Moss, The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom (HarperOne, 2013)
See my review on 8/1/14.
Timothy Barnes is a Classics professor and is widely recognized as an expert on the fourth century. He also wrote Constantine and Eusebius, and both books are highly regarded by scholars in this field – the Christian church in the context of the Later Roman Empire. This is an important book on Athanasius, but it is not the book I expected. If you are looking for a hagiography of the great Athanasius as the defender of orthodoxy against the Arians, you won’t find it here. This book gives only passing attention to what it was about Arius and Arian Christology that so exercised Athanasius. The great theological writings and insights of Athanasius are barely discussed.
Instead, this book is about the conflicts that Athanasius had with four Roman emperors, but especially with Constantine’s son, Constantius. It was these conflicts that caused Athanasius to be exiled no less than five different times. As part of his examination of these conflicts, Barnes also engages in some original historical work leading to a new reconstruction of the chronology of Athanasius’ career – that is what makes this book very important for church historians. But Barnes’s dislike for Athanasius as a person shines through. At certain points it felt like I was reading a hit-piece.
As long as you know what you’re getting, this book is essential reading for historians of Athanasius and this whole turbulent and distressing period of church history between the Council of Nicaea and the Council of Constantinople. Things were pretty messy during this time – mainly because the emperors meddled directly in the affairs of the church. Some of them were Arian or sympathetic with Arianism, and one was a pagan (Julian the Apostate). Yet in spite of it all, God used flawed men and institutions to preserve the truth of the gospel.
Appendix 10, “Creeds and Councils, 337–361,” provides a useful list of the 15 councils or synods convened during the reign of Constantius. The creeds produced by these gatherings of Arian, semi-Arian, and politically-expedient (e.g., unwilling to get exiled by Constantius) bishops were either anti-Nicene in their theology or were failed attempts at compromise. When the dust settled after the Council of Constantinople in 381, all these sub-orthodox creeds were consigned to the dustbin of history. If you want to delve into the labyrinth of fourth century councils, this website is a good resource.
This is a fascinating book that attempts to answer the question: How did the Christian faith go from being a faith held by a tiny persecuted minority to having a dominant place in society by the end of the fourth century? MacMullen is a social historian of the Roman Empire, which means that he conducts historical analysis from below, looking at it from the point of view of the masses, rather than looking at history (as is traditionally done) from the point of view of the elite and the politically powerful.
In order to answer his research question, MacMullen must examine the question of “conversion.” What did it mean for a pagan to convert to Christianity? He defines conversion as “that change of belief by which a person accepted the reality and supreme power of God and determined to obey him” (p. 5). This definition is deliberately focused on the abandonment of the old Greek and Roman gods and a new belief in the one true God, together with a determination to obey God. This is a historian’s definition, not a theologian’s. It leaves out a number of crucial elements: faith in Christ, the doctrinal contents of the Christian creed, baptism, and adherence to the church. These things may come later, but the initial break with paganism, and its concrete manifestation (no longer honoring the old gods), is what MacMullen wants to analyze historically.
How did the the mass of Roman society become converted or Christianized in late antiquity? MacMullen catalogs a variety of forces, but the two that stood out to me were the following:
First, the role of holy men who challenged paganism. MacMullen highlights stories of holy men (ascetics) like Gregory the Wonder-worker who would go around the countryside challenging the pagans in spiritual “shoot outs” between the true God and the gods of the pagans, which were viewed as nothing less than demons. When the pagan populace saw that these holy men breaking down pagan idols, and nothing happened, or when they saw demons being cast out, they sometimes gave up their pagan beliefs and converted on the spot. There is another story when a band of bedouins converted at the sight of the bearded Simeon Stylites on his famous pillar in the hot blazing Syrian sun. The bedouins immediately gave up the worship of Aphrodite and promised to never again eat camel meat! Stories such as this can be multiplied.
Second, the role of the Christian Roman Emperors as patrons of the church with all that that implied in terms of monetary support and prestige. MacMullen places great weight on the conversion of Constantine in AD 312 and its after-effects throughout the fourth century. As Christianity became more and more favored and sanctioned by the Roman Imperial government, it grew in influence and power in society. The Empire offered financial rewards and jobs in the government to professing Christians. It gave hugely valuable tax exemptions to churches and bishops. Eventually by the end of the fourth century, the Empire used increasingly coercive methods, outlawing pagan worship, and taking over pagan temples. Ultimately, the Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the Empire in AD 380.
All in all, this is a fascinating read. It gives you a side of church history that is honestly a little uncomfortable. Nevertheless, it reminds us that the God uses historical, social, and even political processes to spread the gospel. Jesus said it would be this way. The kingdom would grow like leaven until it leavens the whole batch of dough. The kingdom is like a mustard seed that grows until it becomes a large tree, and even the birds of the air nest in its branches.