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Jesus Wars

In Mark 8:29 Jesus asked his disciples “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ.” Simple and clear, right? Well, if so, it certainly proved exceedingly difficult for the church to subsequently work through all of the questions and issues that surrounded and intertwined Peter’s initial declaration.

How do you have both Monotheism and a Triune God? And, is Jesus fully God and fully man? Seemingly intractable paradoxes.

During the Fourth Century A.D. the church tried to settle the question of Arianism – did Christ always exist or was He initially created by God the Father, and hence inferior. Charles Freeman recently detailed the history, theology and politics of this controversy in an excellent book titled AD 381: Heretics, Pagans and the Christian State (Overlook, 2008). [Some might find it interesting to compare his account and the struggle with Arianism in Seventh-day Adventist history.]

But after Trinitarianism emerged victorious, the Christological struggles were far from over. The Fifth Century was a battleground for the question of Christ’s nature. Was he fully God and man? How could he – logically and practically – be both? Was it some sort of mixture? Or perhaps an illusion? The gospels are far from definitive and this ambiguity complicates the inherent complexity.

The ‘second round’ of this protracted Christological struggle is the focus of a new book by Philip Jenkins titled Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years (HarperOne, 2010).

The term ‘Jesus Wars’ is an appropriate label. Jenkins’ book works through more than a century of intense conflict – a mélange of theology, politics (both church and secular), with anathemas, bribery and sectarian violence punctuated by three different church councils. The second council degenerated into a mob scene where the Bishop of Constantinople was killed. The actions implemented by this heavily rigged proceeding were later repudiated and the meeting came to be known as the ‘Gangster Synod’.

Such a tawdry history of how Christology evolved toward orthodoxy – positions fully accepted by most Adventists today – is frankly shocking to our modern sensibilities. We might innocently have expected sober Church Fathers breaking into subcommittees, preparing and presenting carefully written papers, engaging in orderly debate (governed by Robert’s Rules of Order) and culminating in prayerfully considered consensus resolutions.

Dream on.

One of the values of studying history (and biography) is that it disabuses us of such simplicity. We want truth clearly delineated from error, with obvious heroes and villains. We like tidy, timely resolutions to complex dilemmas. After all, it consistently happens on TV, all within an hour, plus commercials.

But none of this happens very often in real life. And it is conspicuously absent in the narrative of Jesus Wars. We had bishops using strong-arm tactics that would evoke admiration from the Mafia. There were apparent random events (such as the untimely death of the emperor Theodosius II) that completely re-weighted the theological power structure. There was the ebb and flow of social unrest as the population factionalized into the Greens (Monophysitism) and the Blues (Chaledonian dual nature – the eventual orthodoxy). Theological subtlety devolved into slogans and loyalty was usually more about what city you were from (Alexandria was Monophysite, Antioch was not) than the quality of the argument.

But the scope and complexity of the story is also problematic for the reader. There are literally dozens of principal actors in this drama, let alone hundreds of minor characters mentioned. And while Jenkins focuses on the Fifth Century he first lays the earlier historical groundwork of the Fourth, and his final section sketches a long epilog culminating with Islam sweeping away much of the Eastern church in the Seventh Century.

It is a very accessible book, but accessibility is a relative term. If you have no familiarity whatsoever with Late Antiquity reading this book can be somewhat tough sledding.

So why try? All those horrid dates and names. Isn’t this just ‘sound and fury’ by long-dead people? Well, I’ve alluded to the reality-grounding value of history. But the somewhat tired old aphorism ‘Those Who Forget History Are Doomed to Repeat It’ should also have its intended effect. At first this convoluted, hero-less story might seem to provide few universal lessons we should remember for the future. And the sort of tactics leaders used then seem unlikely to be re-employed any time soon. (Some of the reluctant bishops at the ‘Gangster Synod’ later wrote “we signed blank sheets … we were threatened with deposition. We were threatened with exile. Soldiers with clubs and swords stood by.”)

But what Jenkins also hammers home to us is that these tactics were being employed by churchmen who were motivated not just by lust for power but by their ultra-zealous sense of upholding orthodoxy – as they understood it. Concerning the church in Alexandria he writes:

“Once Christianity was legalized and churches became widespread, lower clergy used their sermons and homilies to disseminate the official patriarchal line throughout the city. They mobilized urban factions against the church’s rivals – against pagans, Jews or imperial officials. Through sermons, processions, and devotions, the church controlled the media through which urban opinion could be manipulated. If they chose, the church had the means to promote demagoguery, and it had a willing audience. Athanasius was certainly willing to use mob action when needed, to the point of beatings and kidnappings.” (p. 93)

Is such extremism so tied to historical context that it cannot be repeated in the future? The Adventist eschatological narrative suggests otherwise and points the finger at Catholicism and apostate Protestantism. But what about the mindset needed to undergird this sort of behavior? It can operate in subtle and less obviously repugnant ways when zeal for orthodoxy finds a minority viewpoint sufficiently irritating as to warrant being suppressed. We too are vulnerable.

Finally I would note the value a history like this can be in informing and even re-shaping the Adventist meta-narrative of the Great Controversy. We have often used Ellen White’s book as a referent in constructing our view of history – and identifying God’s role and actions. Lifelong Adventists were confidently taught about the rise and fall of the Papacy, using the 1260 day prophecy (538-1798) to validate this picture.

But if you lay Jenkins’ book alongside Adventism’s story a much more complicated picture emerges. A high-level view of the Great Controversy is not invalidated, but the precision with which we have sometimes parsed the past to support our eschatology becomes more problematic. This can be scary if we are overly attached to needing all the details to be correct or the slippery slope will have its dire effect.

But history can also broaden our vision and provide the perspective from which we can gain even firmer footing. And reading Jesus Wars can provide that – perhaps unexpected – benefit as well.

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