Philip Jenkins is able to communicate complex ideas and complicated concepts in a manner that preserves their integrity to a wide audience and at the same time renders them as a fascinating and lively story. I have been a fan of his books for some time. His book “Jesus Wars” describes the historical intricacies that surrounded the theological debates of the fifth through eighth centuries of nature and person of Christ. The book lives up to its subtitle — How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years in more than one way. “Jesus Wars” explains how arbitrary and narrowly the Orthodox belief won over what’s declared as Heresy. Phillip Jenkins got me hooked from the first page by answering my key questions about this Byzantine period of Christian schism in the 4th and 5th century (and beyond):
- Why were theological battles about Jesus’ nature that fierce and violent?
- Were those Christian “civil wars” the primary cause of the “Fall of the Roman Empire”
- Did those tensions in the cradle of Christianity lead to appeasement toward their invaders?
- How interacted religion, patriarchs and worldly powers?
- Were the theological differences subtile or substantial?
Orthodoxy (and of course the Roman Catholic Church) state that Jesus was both God and Human. Seen from C. G. Jung it misses just one dimension why the most complex monotheistic symbol (Trinity) prevailed. As Phillip Jenkins explained in another brilliant book “The Lost History of Christianity” – religions fight, prosper, flee, fade away, die or get even killed. His sociological understanding of religious history is always helpful to connect related and interdependent events. He argues also convincingly from Mark gospel and even more from (mystic and slightly gnostic) St. John the validation approaches. Approaching religious and the mystic questions with logic (!) is less convincing: “But when we have said that, we have raised more questions than we have answered, as the basic belief in Jesus Christ demands combining two utterly different categories of being”.
The book explains very well, the substance of different beliefs of Jesus’ nature and their political and philosophical implications. Such a transgression of boundaries indicated indeed a crossroad within Christianity between the “patriarchs” of Constantinople, Rome, Antiochian and Alexandria. It has been also hotly disputed, up today by strict monotheists such as Muslims and Jews. If pressed to identify a deficiency in Jenkins’ telling of these debates it is that his text emphasis to the human and political factors in this drama. Modern history is somewhat deaf in regards of religious, transcendent and psychoanalytical importance of those positions keeping God at a distance. Jenkins knows the Gospel but may underestimate the powerful value of combining the material (human) and the spiritual (divine), the power of archetypes and symbols and the importance of the female Mary leading to Quaternity.
Seen only from the historian angle Phillip Jenkins notes correctly “What ultimately became accepted as Christian orthodoxy was hammered out in a process that was painfully slow, gradual, and often bloody. This conflict was marked by repeated struggles, coups, and open warfare spread over centuries. It is easy to imagine another outcome in which the so-called Orthodox would have been scorned as heretics, with incalculable consequences for mainstream political history, not to mention all later Christian thought and devotion.” Phillip Jenkins believes that this thing “turned on a dime.” Doctrinal shifts went back and forth and there was a time when the two-nature or God/Human description of Jesus was a heresy. This is how one of the battles was won: “Caledonian ideas triumphed not because of the force of their logic, but because the world that opposed them perished.” “Looking at history, the process of establishing orthodoxy involved a huge amount of what we might call political accident” he claims — on the outcome of dynastic succession, on victory or defeat in battle, on the theological tastes and political plans of key figures. History is however, always a story of ifs, and matters might very easily have gone another way. And yet the outcome — the Trinity and the supposed two natures of Jesus — form the bedrock of orthodox Christian belief.
Jenkins asks if chance is a valid concept and when he says no — not from a Christian perspective – he steps over the border being a historian. Yes, Nestorians, or Monophysites could have won – but they didn’t – and so failed other competitors to the Roman Church. As Christians refused to worship the emperor as a god, persecution of the Christians and conflicts continued until the reign of Constantine in the early 4th century AD. Very popular with the military was for instance Mithraism, until by 392 AD, Emperor Theodosius I banned the practice of pagan religions in Rome altogether and Christianity was, without question, the official religion of the state. That is just another if.
From my catholic profession and Jungian point I would strongly disagree with Jenkins when he analyzes logically Monophysitism,Nestorianism and the prevailing Orthodox concept of Trinity. He leaves aside its theological novelty, uniqueness and the symbolic value of the separated dual nature picture of Jesus. I share his critique of the basic political process: this is the truth and if you don’t believe it, you are a heretic. Philip Jenkins points out that these conflicts have “left an impact that survives into the present day.” He then makes what I feel is his most profound contribution: he says that the church councils which were responsible for the present-day creeds “remade a faith.” Quite frankly – yes- this central and dogmatic approach is the very reason why the Roman Church became the first and still is the largest global organisation with the “biggest brand name” and not 38000 other Christian side branches.
We all know that the winners write history but as Jenkins sees it, it is even worse than that — far worse. He rightfully argues that “historians write retroactively from the point of view of those who would win at some later point, even if that victory was nowhere in sight at the time they are describing.” Quite frankly, his story of twisted, tortured history applies also to the background of postmodern de-constructionism also known as political correctness.
The author describes the key questions of an honest fight between concepts (or religions): How is it possible to possess two natures — what was their relationship?
Arianism is the teaching that Jesus was not eternal, that he was a created being, created within the framework of earthly space and time, and thus not fully God. Arius was a priest in Alexandria, Egypt, who died in AD 336. Jesus was seen as the very best creature that God created. Arius had triggered such turmoil within the churches that it was a leading cause of the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. The Council examined the Scriptures that spoke of who and what Jesus was, in Paul’s letters and the first chapter of the Gospel of John, and declared Arianism to be a heresy. They wrote a creed that was mainly aimed at opposing Arianism. The struggle continued after Nicaea and after Arius’ death, and it even took on political implications. The chief of the opposition to Arianism was Athanasius. In 381, the Council of Constantinople once again called Arianism a heresy, mostly due to the Biblical and philosophical case that Athanasius had built over the years. Arianism faded fast after that. The specific Arianist group Athanasius fought had died, but the basic idea did not. It resurrected itself many times throughout church history. Many of today’s groups that derived from Christianity have strong tendencies toward that belief, even if expressed very differently: Unitarianism and Jehovah’s Witnesses
Docetism [ < Greek dokeo (to seem, appear to be)] : The idea that Jesus Christ was a totally divine being who only appeared to be human. It is the opposite idea to Arianism, in which Jesus was all-human and not in any way divine in nature. For docetists, Jesus was with us, but never really of us, and thus didn’t really suffer, and (for most Docetism) didn’t really die. Docetism is not a heretical group as much as it is a category, a basic idea which describes many schools of thought over the years. Any idea that assigns a low worth to the material world and a high value to that which is deemed ‘spiritual’ will tend toward this idea. (See “Gnostic” below.) Docetism is a form of dualism, and like other dualisms, Docetism was rejected by the early church as not being in keeping with what Christ was about. God so loved us that God ‘incarnated’ (that is, became human) in Jesus, thus blessing the whole ‘material’ realm with the ‘spiritual’ impact of God. But like most heresies, Docetism tries to come in the back door; the churches, especially parts of Roman Catholicism, and fundamentalist Calvinists often draw a vigorous sacred/secular divide. Christian Gnostics are in effect docetists.
Ebionitism [ < Heb. ‘ebyônim (the poor) < ‘ebyôn (a poor person)]: The idea that Jesus was a human being and not at all divine, but Jesus was given certain gifts by God’s spirit which set him apart from other people. Because of what God gave Him, Jesus was deemed the Messiah or Christ, but that meant only that He was chosen by God, not that He was savior of all humankind. The Law of Moses was still what counts with God. The church rejected the idea behind it, possibly as early as 110 AD. Some scholars have made the claim that the Ebionites were pretty much the lineal descendents of the Jewish Christians that were led by James the Just at the time of Paul. (These scholars posit a stronger adversarial relationship between James himself and Paul than Acts or Paul’s letters show.) However, it would be much more accurate to put them in the context of other groups, both Jewish and Christian, that existed during the first two centuries of Christianity. There were many small Jewish groups (like the Essenes of Dead Sea Scrolls fame) with many different shades of practice, with many ideas and practices which bled into those of other groups, making a continuum. Like Judaism, Christianity also had small groups which took a different direction than the mainstream. Nearly all of these were moral rightist in some way — their behavior had to tightly conform to the Law of Moses, seen to varying degrees through the lens of Jesus’ sermons. And only some of them were rejected by mainstream Christianity. Ebionitism view of Jesus is shared by Islam.
Apollinarism or Apollinarianism : Since the Nicean Council in 325, Christian theological-talk focused on what the Trinity meant, especially to explain how Jesus Christ could be fully God and fully human at the same time. Apollinaris the Younger (d. 390 AD) became bishop of Laodicea (in Syria) around 361 AD. He championed the idea that Jesus’ mind was solely divine and not human, that the creative Logos of God had in some way taken the place of the human Jesus’ mind. His human nature was confined to His body (physical nature), but even that was in a sense ‘glorified’. This made Jesus almost entirely divine and not fully human. The trouble was that the churches had come to see in Scripture Jesus’ role in relating not just to God within the Trinity but to humans as a human. He was on both sides of the Divine/Human relationship. It was the only way he could effectively reunite and reconcile the two sides. Or, to use the language of the sacrifice: he was fully God, in order to be a pure and worthy sacrifice, and he was fully human like us, so he could be the sacrifice for us. Apollinaris’ approach makes Jesus un-like us and not quite like God, a third kind of being. Athanasius showed how Apollinaris’ approach poorly explained what Jesus Christ did, at a Synod (in Alexandria in 362. The “fully God, fully human” approach of Athanasius won the day in 381 at the Council of Constantinople.
Eutychianism: In the Eutychian way of thinking, Christ was put through a blender – that is, His being God and His being human were so totally mixed together that He was homogenized into being Something Else. When theologians say that Christ has two natures, they mean that Jesus was fully God (and thus had the full power and ability to accomplish His mission of rescue) – and fully a human, living out a material human life (which made it possible to experience life such as what we have, to be in full solidarity with us, and to redeem us out of love). Jesus is one of us, and that is what makes what He did so real, what makes it matter. No third type of being could do it for real, because it wouldn’t be on either side of the relationship that was to be healed.
Gnosticism gnosis [ < Greek gnosis (knowledge)]. The Greek word gnosis is a basic word for any sort of knowledge. In a religious or philosophical context, it usually refers to the ‘secret’ or ‘special’ knowledge that is said to set one free from the ‘illusory’ material world. Gnosticism was a religious and philosophical movement of the late Hellenistic times, which according to modern scholar have Egyptian and Persian roots and arising out of Jewish mysticism. Gnosticism arrived therefore even before Christianity. It was the offspring of the mystery cults and pantheism religions of Greece, Persian Dualism, and Palestine, with Jewish sectarian apocalypse .
The starting point is noble but it’s many ideas depressing. The one God is without fail and perfect but the created world is on big mistake and illusion. The contradiction is solved by an imperfect creator – the demiurge – created an illusionary world – in modern times the Movie “Matrix” has purely gnostic concepts:
- the material world is not an illusion for us to be freed from, it is a wonder-work of God’s creation we were made to be a part of, and God is still at work today to make it whole again;
- the knowledge on which everything hangs is already revealed by (and as) Jesus Christ, and God sent the Spirit to reveal to all believers what God is up to — this is no ‘secret’, and even if it was, the Christian’s duty would be to give it away freely anyway.
To the contrary, the Christian see a perfect world, created by a God as perfect creator. , in that the eval came by Gnosticism was more than a corruption of Christianity, which fought it with furor. Even today you can read Christian qualify Gnostic as “fungus” and “cancer” trying to take over Christianity which tried its best to suck in the strong, fledgling Christian faith and reshape it into its image.
The gnostic “Jesus” is one who saves you from the world, not for it. A Gnostic god could never really be ‘God-with-us’, nor could it be so focused on loving those wallowing in the earthly mire. Gnosticism faded away as they most converted to Islam but recently raised again New Age and left its traces in other places (Psychoanalysis). The idea of ‘secret’ or ‘special’ spiritual knowledge has historically had its strongest appeal among the intelligentsia and C.G. Jung was deeply influenced with Gnostic thoughts.
Nestorianism, deriving from Antiochian school sees the Person of Christ as a single unified human person having two disjoint natures. Nestorianism stressed the distinction between the divine and the human in Christ to such an extent that it appeared that two persons were living in the same body and rejected the title Theotokos (“Bringer forth of God”) for the Virgin Mary.
Monophysitism, from the Alexandrian school of thought (fashioned on the Gospel of John) see Jesus Christ, as the incarnation of the eternal Son or Word (Logos) of God, who had only a single (divine) nature.
Miaphysitism holds that in the one person of Jesus Christ, Divinity and Humanity are mingled in one or single nature (“physis”). As Nestorianism had its roots in the Antiochene tradition and was opposed by the Alexandrian tradition, Christians in Syria and Egypt wanted to distance themselves with this term. A scholarly used term only, Miaphysitism will be usually – and is also by Jenkins’ book – lumped together with Monophysitism. Note the subtile difference to Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox belief, which is mainly in understanding of the word nature.
Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox belief explained the huge issue of a God better, who could suffer and die, strongly opposing Nestorius who said, “The creature did not bear the Creator, but she bore a man, the instrument of deity” and Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria, who thought that Christ was an abstraction, going into very grave heresies, seeing Jesus as a “nonresident alien.” The Council of Chalcedon was the watershed of prevailing Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox belief. Human and divine natures of the Person of Christ co-exist, yet each is distinct and complete and the Council clearly distinguished between person and nature. The fight between Monophysitism and Caledonians (later Roman Catholic) went on for 200 years after the Council of Chalcedon until Antioch and Alexandria came under -from Monophysitism welcomed- rule of the Islam with disastrous results. After a brief period of dimmni status, this part of the world was in effect lost to Christianity after the Christians lost majority presecutution started.
I appreciate, as always, Jenkins the fresh and unique historian and recommend this book, but I am a little bit disappointed in Jenkins’ description of “transcendent issues” and behavior of organisation in this “business”. Great book though of the best scholar covering those issues and that time.