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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years

Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (Audio) - Diarmaid MacCulloch, Walter Dixon The title provides an early indication that the Ancient Greek and Hebrew roots of Christianity are covered by this book in addition to the past two thousand years that are more commonly accepted as the era of Christianity. That's a very long span of history, in fact too broad of a scope to cover in great detail even with 1184 pages (actually 1000 pages plus table of contents, notes, bibliography, index and illustrations). Nevertheless, the author does a good job telling the story in a free flowing but yet objective narrative.

The author's discussion of Hebrew history appears to accept the story as portrayed in the Hebrew scriptures of kings David and Solomon as being historical. The strongest suggestion that the accounts of King Solomon may have been exaggerated was, "... later biblical writers living in less glorious days did nothing to diminish." As well informed as the author appears to be of critical historical scholarship elsewhere in the book, I'm reasonably sure he's aware that modern archeological findings have raised questions concerning that history. There is strong archeological evidence that Mt. Zion was unoccupied during that era of history when David and Solomon would have reigned (c.1000-c.930 BCE). I suggest reading The Bible Unearthed if you want to read more about this subject.

The story of the spread of Christianity to the east, as far as the China Sea and India, is a part of history of which I knew little. Since Christianity didn't survive in great numbers in the east, many of the details of this history have been lost. But this book tells of interesting clues of its spread. It's interesting to consider the fate of Christianity in the East as a possible example of what would have happened in the West if Christianity had not received state sponsorship from the Roman Empire.

The church divisions created by subtle differences of word meanings used to describe various views of Christology are enough to make one's head spin. The Council of Chalcedon in 451CE created a distinction between dyophysite and miaphysite views of which I am unable to comprehend the difference, even after reading their definitions more than once. Almost certainly, many of these disagreements were caused by difficulty in translating concepts from Greek into other languages. Differences like this among the Christians of the eastern world made that area ripe for being conquered by Islam. Some miaphysite Christians considered the Moslem invaders to be liberators from the dyophsite Christian rulers. If you want to waste some time, take a look at this chart that graphically portrays the various forms of Christology: (Link to Chart)

Another example of difficulty in translation of ideas related to Christology was in the writings of Augustine (354-430). He, writing in Latin, said something to the effect that Jesus and the Holy Spirit proceeded from God. This wording was generally accepted in the Latin speaking world, but rejected in the Greek speaking world.

Then we come to the so called Dark Ages, more correctly referred to as the Early Medieval Ages. I find it ironic that the so called "invading hordes of Barbarians" who are generally credited with causing the fall of the Western Roman Empire considered themselves to be Christians. But to the Latin speaking world they were known as Arian Christians, the worst kind of heretic. (The word Arian comes from Arius (ca. AD 250–336) whose teaching is generally considered to be nontrinitarian.) Much of the art, architecture and literature of the Arian Christians have been erased by later generations. But what little does survive indicates that the Arian Christians emphasized the life of Jesus over the story of his crucifixion. (I find this of special interest since I believe that traditional Christianity has focused too much on the death of Christ.)

The author makes the case that if Clovis I (c. 466–511, the first King of the Franks) had not converted to Catholicism that Western Europe may have evolved into a diverse Arian Christianity instead of a Roman Catholic Church loyal to the Pope in Rome. There are many turns of history that this book points out that were not inevitable. History could have gone in many different directions at many different times.

The discussion of early missionary work in northern Europe describes the adoption of Christianity as more of a group experience than decisions made by individuals. Those who experienced the event generally described it with words such as, “accepted” or “submitted” rather than “conversion.” The missionaries targeted the gentry or nobility, and if successful could add a whole kingdom to the fold all at once. The author goes on to say:
“Christianity everywhere had a big advantage in being associated with the ancient power that obsessed all Europe, Imperial Rome. The Latin speaking church became a curator of Roman-ness. That is a paradox since Jesus had been crucified by a Roman provincial Governor and Peter by an Emperor. But the cultural alliance stuck.”

Coverage of the medieval era includes discussion of the development of systems of sacraments, penance, parish, celibacy, monastic orders, canon law, crusades, fighting of heretics, development of universities, and increased knowledge of the writings of Aristotle. On the subject of the worship of Mary, I found the following quotation of interest by Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153 CE), who supported the veneration of Mary, but not the Immaculate Conception:
"The idea of immaculate conception was a novelty that Mary would not enjoy." (I wonder if Bernard was smiling when he said that.)

The medieval era in the Eastern Orthodox Church is covered next by the book. I was surprised to learn that the Eastern Church went through an iconoclastic era. Ironically, in the end icons became a very important part of their liturgy and theology. The Byzantine Empire and Orthodox Church had the misfortune of needing to fight recurring military and theological battles against the east (Moslems), the west (Roman Catholics), and their own internal dissenters. The story of the Byzantine Empire seems to have a pattern of recurring centralized recovery followed by disintegration. It finally ended in the 1400s though the Orthodox Church continued. The book then tells the history of the Russian Orthodox Church which appeared to adopt traditions and practices from the Greek Orthodox and then embellish them. Polish, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian Church histories are also covered.

The book next provided insights into the Reformation era. One fact new to me was that in the years prior to the Reformation the sale of indulgences was more common in northern Europe than in the south. This may partly explain the persistence of the Protestant Reformation in the north. The author also noted that the recent introduction of the Greek New Testament into the West created a reaction never experienced in the East:
"When scholars heard for the first time the unmediated urgency of the angular street Greek poured out by Jesus' post resurrection convert Paul of Tarsus as he wrestled with the problem of how Jesus represented God, the shock of the familiar experienced in an unfamiliar form was bound to suggest to the most sensitive minds in Latin Christianity that the Western Church was not so authoritative interpreter of scripture as it claimed. If there is any one explanation why the Latin west experienced a Reformation and the Greek speaking lands to the east did not, it lies in this experience of listening to a new voice in the New Testament text."

The author skimmed through coverage of the Anabaptists which is to be expected for a book covering 3,000 years of history. After a description of the English reformation the book moves on to the Counter (or Catholic) Reformation. The intrigues during the early years of the Counter Reformations raise interesting speculations as to how differently things could have been, if only... I recommend the book titled Q by Luther Blisset (Link to Book) for an interesting fictional account of the Reformation years ending with the intrigue, politics, betrayal, and terror of the Counter Reformation politics in Italy leading up to the Council of Trent.

One incomprehensible, horrifying and unintended consequence of the Reformation was an outbreak of witchcraft hysteria. Over the 160 years from 1500 to 1660, Europe saw between 50,000 and 80,000 suspected witches executed. (This book says "Maybe forty to fifty thousand ... between 1400 and 1800") About 80% of those killed were women. It occurred in both Protestant and Catholic regions. It's tempting to conclude that this number of executions exceeds the total number of religious martyrs of the same era, but that may not be true. After all, nearly 25,000 (this book says 5,000) Protestants were murdered in Paris alone and perhaps double that number (this book says "many more terrorized") throughout France in the days following the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre. The Martyr's Mirror documents over 1,000 Anabaptist martyrs. It was not a good time in which to live.

The spread of Christianity through the advent of European colonization is covered next by the book. Here's an interesting quote regarding slavery:
"The expedient of importing African slaves was in part meant to protect the native American population from exploitation. Not many clergy comprehended the moral disaster. One Franciscan based in the University of Mexico City ... (1571) had the clear sightedness to condemn the common argument that Africans were being saved from Pagan darkness by the removal to America, remarking sarcastically, "I don't believe that it can be demonstrated that according the law of Christ the liberty of the soul can be purchased by the servitude of the body." His words found few echoes. "

The book moves on to cover North American colonization, Puritans, hymnody and English Glorious Revolution. I was surprised to learn how much the young Charles Wesley was inspired by the Moravians. According to this book the Moravians indeed did enjoy playing the trombone; I previously had considered that to be a myth for a children's story.

When the book finally arrived at the Age of Enlightenment, I thought rational thinking might make an appearance. Indeed there was some, but there was also the French Revolution and Pope Pius IX. The French Revolution was extremism in one direction and Pope Pius IX was in the other direction. Pope Pius IX in 1864 issued a Syllabus of Errors which disapproved of anything that might be considered modern; such as human reason, separation of church and state, Protestantism, freedom of religion, progress, modernism and liberalism. It was during his tenure that the decree of papal infallibility was adopted and the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was accepted. Intellectuals in the Catholic Church had been resisting the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary ever since the 1100’s, but it proved to be popular with the laity. Soon after it was adopted Mary made an appearance at Lourdes indicating that she approved. (I need to clarify here, for people who are as uninformed as I used to be, that the "immaculate conception" refers to Mary's birth, not Jesus'.) Pope Pius IX was beatified in the year 2000.

The book skimmed through 19th Century Anglican and Orthodox histories, and then proceed through modern philosophy (master of suspicion), archeology and critical biblical scholarship. Then it covered the one topic where the Christian Church actually made a positive contribution (belatedly) to human welfare that went against economic considerations--the antislavery movement. Ironically, it took some creative reinterpretation of scriptures in order to do so.
"... the 'unwearied, unostentatious and inglorious crusade of England against slavery may probably be regarded as among the three or four perfectly virtuous acts recorded in the history of nations'. .... abolition was an act of moral revulsion which defied the strict commercial interests of European and anglophone nations. Less frequently has it been recognized as one of the more remarkable turnarounds in Christian history: a defiance of biblical certainties, spearheaded by British Evangelicals who made it a point of principle to uphold biblical certainties."

Then the book told the story of late 19th and 20th Century worldwide missionary movement. It goes on the discuss the variety of denominations to develop in the United States. Then it covered church activities before, during and after the World Wars of the 20th Century. It is here that the author decided to talk about the Mennonities, of which I have a special interest. He hardly said anything about them in the material written for the Reformation where I would normally expect to find it. Here's what he said:

The Bolsheviks' hatred of religious practice extended far beyond the official Church. Of all the stories of Christian suffering in Russia after 1917, that of the Mennonites can stand for others because of the peculiar moral dilemma it presented for this sect, which since the Reformation had itself rejected the ideal of Christendom now in collapse. First gathered in the Netherlands in the 1530s by Menno Simons, a Frisian former priest sickened by the blood-soaked end to the siege of Munster, Mennonites expressed their difference from the world around them by renouncing all forms of coercion or public violence, soldiering of course included. Their prosperity attracted Bolshevik and anarchist raids, both out of ideological hatred of 'bourgeois' farmers, and from simple greed or necessity--but there was another intoxicating element for bullies: the Mennonites would not fight back when attacked. Men were murdered, women raped, everything was stolen. For many of them, it was too much. They fought back and sent perpetrators of the outrages packing--but now they had to face the wrath of brethren and sisters who said that they were betraying Mennonite principles. When Russian Mennonites finally had the chance, most made new lives in communities in North America; but they did not forget the controversy. Bad feeling and arguments about the Russian civil war still beset quiet places in the prairies of Canada.

The author's decision to tell the story about a subset of Mennonites who ended up in Canada can perhaps be explained by the fact that he is British.

The book finishes up by covering the subjects of The World Council of Churches, Pentecostalism, Second Vatican Council, liberation theology, cultural revolutions, and post Soviet era changes.

Following Christian history through the ages over its tortuous and scattered path makes one wonder, if indeed there is a triune Christian God who loves us and intervenes in human affairs, that He (or She) must really have a weird sense of humor.

The author MacCulloch has also recorded six lectures on the same subject as this book. The lectures are available on DVD published under the title, A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years.

The following short review of this book is from the PageADay Book Lover's Calendar for 4/4/12:

A massive and sweeping history of the Christian church by a professor of church history at Oxford University. Clocking in at over 1,000 pages and illustrated with color plates, it has time and space to explore philosophical questions regarding Christianity and finer points of Biblical scholarship, and does not ignore the politics that helped drive Christianity’s growth. It is an approach that The New York Times calls “sprawling, sensible and illuminating.”