Can anyone spot a connection between the demonisation of dissidents, free assemblers, anarchists, protestors, free speakers today, and AD381?
AD381: Heretics, Pagans and the Christian State by Charles Freeman
Reviewed by John Carey
"Theodosius's... was not a theologian, and was motivated .. by the political aim of enforcing uniformity in an empire
threatened with break-up. Those who refused to accept his ruling were,
he declared, "demented and insane". They would be branded as heretics,
and smitten with earthly penalties as well as divine vengeance. This
crude imposition of a central Christian doctrine by imperial diktat
has, Freeman claims, been airbrushed out of church history. It put an
end to a long tradition of freedom of speech, and overturned the edict
of toleration promulgated by the emperor Constantine only a few decades
Charles Freeman's 2003 book The Closing of the Western Mind upset Christian theologians. So will this one. As before, he argues that the coming of Christianity terminated the tradition of free, tolerant debate that had prevailed in the classical world, replacing it with irrational dogma, enforced by savage persecution, that obstructed the advance of western thought for centuries. But his new book has a sharper focus, selecting as a defining moment the year AD381 when Theodosius, emperor of the eastern Roman empire, required all his subjects to believe in a trinity, in which Father, Son and Holy Spirit were of equal majesty.
As Freeman explains, the problem of the relations between the members of the Godhead stemmed from the decision of the early church to adopt the old testament as part of Christian scripture. The cruel and vengeful God of the old testament was so obviously different from the Jesus of the gospels that it seemed impossible to many early Christians that they could be the same person. The belief that Jesus was separate from and subordinate to the Father became popular, and was supported by appeal to Jesus's own sayings in the gospels. However, in AD325 the Council of Nicea decreed that Father and Son were of "one substance", that each had existed from all eternity, and that there was no question of the Son being subordinate. It was this decision that Theodosius endorsed.
For many believers, it raised difficulties. The word "substance" suggested some kind of physical material, which seemed inappropriate for God. Further, if Jesus was the same substance as the Father, how had he become a distinct person? When had they split up? Again, the Nicene Creed states that Jesus is the Father's "only-begotten" Son. But if he is co-eternal with the Father, when was he begotten? Is it possible for any being to be begotten, yet to have existed always? To modern rationalists these questions bear as much relation to reality as Jack and the Beanstalk, and the spectacle of theologians exercising their minds over them can only be ridiculous. But Freeman is far from being guilty of such disrespect. He deplores Dawkins-style God-bashing, and appreciates the importance these matters had, and still have, for Christians. As he points out, many Christians questioned whether, if Jesus was the same substance as God, he could experience suffering. It was generally accepted that God could not. But if Jesus could not suffer, his passion and crucifixion seemed empty pretence. On the other hand, if he could suffer it seemed he was a lesser divinity than God.
Theodosius's decree did not answer such questions, it simply suppressed them, adopting the decisions of Nicea as imperial policy, and adding the doctrine of the Trinity that the Nicene Creed did not contain. He was not a theologian, and was motivated not by religious considerations but by the political aim of enforcing uniformity in an empire threatened with break-up. Those who refused to accept his ruling were, he declared, "demented and insane". They would be branded as heretics, and smitten with earthly penalties as well as divine vengeance. This crude imposition of a central Christian doctrine by imperial diktat has, Freeman claims, been airbrushed out of church history. It put an end to a long tradition of freedom of speech, and overturned the edict of toleration promulgated by the emperor Constantine only a few decades before. Constantine had resolved that everyone in his realms, Christian and pagan alike, should be free to worship "as his soul prefers". Theodosius over-ruled this civilised forbearance.
By acquiescing in imperial policy the church made itself the servant of an authoritarian state. It became part of the structure of empire, housed in opulent buildings and giving full support to the empire's wars. This profitable compromise reinforced, Freeman believes, its doctrine regarding the Father and the Son. The Jesus of the gospels, poor, outcast, uncontaminated by worldly power, had been an apt figurehead for a persecuted religion. But he now seemed a less appropriate role model, and the church's response was to upgrade his divinity, equating him with the angry, bellicose God of the old testament, who seemed likelier to prove an effective ally in the empire's military engagements. The persecution not only of heretics but of all non-Christians was a natural result of Theodosius's policy. The pagan gods were reclassified as evil spirits, and their shrines demolished. Synagogues, too, were destroyed, and it was decreed that no more should be built. Jews were debarred from all honours and dignities and from public office. The threat of eternal punishment in hell for heretics and unbelievers entered Christian doctrine, a refinement, Freeman notes, unknown to religious thought in the classical world. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, declared, when plague broke out in the city, that it should be welcomed because Jews and pagans would now be thrown into hell more quickly, while Christians would speed to heaven.
This phase of Christian development culminated, Freeman's account shows, in the sinister and obscurantist theology of Augustine, a saint in both the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion, and one of the foremost church fathers. Like the apostle Paul, whose writings deeply influenced him, Augustine believed in a wrathful, incalculable deity, intent on punishment. All mankind, he taught, was mired in "original sin", a term he invented. Nobody was free of this sin even at birth, so unbaptised infants would burn in hell eternally. Redemption was possible only through God's grace, and why God gave grace to some and denied it to others was "totally unclear". Augustine sanctioned burning alive as an appropriate punishment for heretics. It had been the traditional Roman punishment for counterfeiting coins, so it seemed right to adopt it for those who counterfeited Christian doctrine. Burning heretics alive was really, he explained, a manifestation of brotherly love, because it chose "short-lived furnaces" for the few, rather than abandoning the many to the eternal fires of hell. He also defended the institution of slavery as part of God's punishment for sin.
Science and study of the natural world were condemned by Augustine, who stigmatised them as the "disease of curiosity". Men should not, he taught, want to discover the secrets of nature, which were, in any case, beyond their grasp. The same went for the mystery of the Trinity. It surpassed human understanding, yet all Christians must accept it or risk being burnt alive. One of the curiosities of the whole debate is that proponents of the Trinity constantly insist that it is beyond human understanding, while arguing strenuously for their own understanding of it and denouncing that of others.
Freeman's book might almost be subtitled The Invention of Christianity, and the strange muddle of political calculation and religious imagining that he teases out has clearly been fundamental to the development of western culture in succeeding centuries, right up to our own. Even if theology and ancient history are subjects you avoid, you should not miss his book. Its lucidity, learning and critical challenge are a feast for the mind.
AD381: Heretics, Pagans and the Christian State by Charles Freeman
Pimlico £20 pp272 http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/history/article3261235.ece