Interrogating the evangelical narrative
There’s a story evangelicals like to tell themselves about their history. It goes something like this:
A long time ago, the early Christian church lived as a small, persecuted minority in the Roman Empire. Martyrdom was frequent and systematic. The church’s only crime was that her members boldly declared Christ alone as Lord. For their insolence, Christians were routinely rounded up and thrown to the lions, meaning those who confessed the faith had to really believe it.
Complete independence from the state mixed with intense persecution made the church pure and Christianity flourished for it. So much so that eventually the church’s witness grew among the masses until authorities begrudgingly allowed them to worship freely.
But this apex of ecclesial purity was soon corrupted by the establishment of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. Constantine’s conversion, which was dubious at best, so mixed church and state that the former was irredeemably corrupted. For nearly fifteen hundred years, Christendom polluted true Christian practice until the syncretism of church and state was dealt a death blow in 1789. Today, evangelicals carry the torch of the early church, forsaking all political power, living “radical” lives of obedience, and awaiting the day of cleansing when persecution resumes and purifies the church once more.
The evangelical narrative is popular for a reason. Persecution, after all, is a major theme of the New Testament. Jesus himself says “Blessed are those who are persecuted” (Matthew 5:10) and calls his disciples to take up their cross (Matthew 16:24). The Apostle Paul knew persecution firsthand (Acts 9:16) and wrote about it constantly. It’s also appealing because it makes average Christians the heroes of their own story. To Matt Chandler’s chagrin, most people fancy themselves David fighting Goliath.
But the evangelical narrative also leads to significant historical and biblical blindspots. A passage like Romans 13:1-7 is reinterpreted to suggest Paul is commanding Christians to submit to all public decrees, both good and evil, even when they include the violent persecution of their own kind. Paul may also be an idolator of comfort when he encourages Timothy to pray for kings and all in high positions (1 Timothy 2:1-2).
Sound biblical exegesis can correct these errors. For interrogating historical presumptions, evangelicals would benefit from less-partisan historiographies like Peter Heather’s new book Christendom: The Triumph of a Religion: AD 300-1300. Heather is a historian and professor at King’s College in London and is popular for his work on the fall of the Roman Empire. Another important biographical note, for this review, is that he is a self-described “thoroughly lapsed Anglican” (xxiv). Perceptive Christians are usually skeptical of unbelieving historians of Christianity, and for good reason. Long is the list of diatribes against the church by so-called objective, third-party observers. And Heather is not immune to bias, his charity bleeds through just enough that he’s worth a serious hearing.
Heather’s book comes at an interesting time, namely the de-conversion from Christianity by the West en masse. If Christianity’s initial rise to prominence was solely a product of its superior ethic and persuasiveness, why are so many leaving the faith today? Could it be that factors that elevated Christianity over its rivals in the past are missing in our present age?
In conjunction with this question of contingency is what Heather identifies as a capacity by Christianity to adapt to various contexts and facilitate easy adoption. In other words, Heather rejects the claim that the early church contained a nascent power to flourish so long as martyrs were willing to water its roots with their own blood. Rather, a complex set of political, social, and economic factors along with martyrs willing to die for their beliefs led to the explosion of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire while serendipitous events (believers would call this providence) permitted the church to flourish once it collapsed.
For evangelicals, the most scandalous of Heather’s conclusions is the mutually beneficial relationship that the church enjoyed with the state. According to Heather, Constantine’s “conversion” was more likely a progressive disclosure of the faith he had received from his father and Roman tetrarch, Constantius Chlorus. While the Empire periodically oppressed Christians, it is just as likely that persecution “was as much about undermining the influence of potential rivals for power within ruling circles as it was about religion” (18). It is no surprise then that Constantine’s final declaration of faith comes on the heels of his most significant military victory and the consolidation of his political power.
Thus, it was just as much Constantine’s public profession of faith as sympathy for beleaguered Christians that facilitated the mass adoption of the Christian religion, especially among the bureaucratic elite. To accommodate the mass influx of converts, Heather argues, the originally intense Jesus Movement of the early church eased requirements for membership and piety (59). The adoption of Christianity by Rome’s ruling class created a cultural Christianity that significantly lowered the barriers to conversion and “provided an extremely powerful mechanism” for climbing the social ladder (82).
Evangelical expectations would be that theological compromise should follow Constantine’s arrogation of religious authority. Instead, we see that Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea and enforced orthodoxy through anti-heresy laws.
When the Roman Empire collapsed, it was not inevitable that Christendom would survive. At the time, orthodox Christianity was fighting wars on two fronts: Islam in the east and Arianism within its own ranks. Nicene Christianity could easily have been stamped out, argues Heather, if not for the conversion of Clovis in the sixth century (193). Again, the public profession of faith by a civil magistrate kept the flame of Christianity burning in the West. Ambitious Christian magistrates, like Charlemagne, revolutionized Christian education and piety through a process of “correctio” (413). Intellectuals from the Carolingian court “were the heart of the process of reform” and took little direction from any kind of independent ecclesial authority in Rome (418).
The middle section of Heather’s book is perhaps the greatest challenge to the evangelical narrative. On the one hand, evangelicals will find his treatment of the papacy refreshing and intellectually honest. The supremacy of the papal see is largely a late Medieval development that started in 1077 and culminated in the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 (508). So far, so good for today’s evangelicals. On the other hand, Christendom confronts them with the reality that complete ecclesial independence from state authorities is largely an invention of the Bishop of Rome.
As Emperor Henry IV knelt in the snow, waiting for papal absolution, he would have certainly felt a dramatic role reversal taking place. Two years earlier, in 1075, Pope Gregory VII had challenged the norm by subverting religious activity in Henry’s domain. Until this point, the relationship between church and state closely resembled the precedent set at Nicea: the emperor assumed the authority to call and convene ecclesial councils and determine religious policy while prelates maintained their preaching and sacramental duties. When Gregory upset that traditional balance, Henry deposed him and was excommunicated in the process. Two years of stand-off went by, but Henry eventually found himself groveling before the Pope. Still, the Investiture Controversy that followed was just another chapter in Rome’s fight for religious authority.
Assuming independent religious authority was a gradual process, one that included purposeful manipulation long before the showdown in 1077. “From late antiquity,” Heather notes, “the papacy had periodically resorted to forgery to shore up key elements of its claim to unequaled prestige within the Christian world” (445). In reality, the medieval deepfake only incidentally heightened the status of Rome. The forgers’ real intent was “to reinforce local episcopal independence” in their own contexts (448). Documents like the Pseudo-Isidore, a collection of Carolingian imperial legislation, church council rulings, and papal decretals that mixed genuine documents with obvious forgeries like the Donation of Constantine demonstrate how independent ecclesial authority depended on papal supremacy (446).
If we’re just going by historical precedent, established local churches by regional dynasts seems to be the dominant arrangement. Christianity’s adaptability to various political and cultural contexts certainly led to some diversity, but it remained relatively committed to Nicene orthodoxy despite its tight, by modern standards, relationship with political authorities. Far from stymieing conversion and Christian piety, magistrates built hundreds of churches and helped advance the education of the clergy who served them.
Of course, Christendom is not without its blemishes. Heather spends a lengthy section on the Crusades, a hotly debated issue when discussing the merits of Christendom. However, even murkier moments in Medieval Christianity, like the Crusades, actually required the kind of ecclesial independence that developed later. In the Crusades, Heather sees “passing over into papal hands” the authority to send Europe’s warriors into battle against the church’s enemies, traditionally a role the emperor had as head of Christendom (477). Additionally, the Pope could turn his personal interests into potential acts of piety by offering penance to Christian soldiers. That Heather condemns the Crusades similarly to New Right criticisms of the Iraq War is interesting but beside the point. One need not have a moral judgment on the Crusades either way to see that they happened because Rome had wrestled enough religious authority from magistrates to dictate new forms of lay piety.
So what do we do with this alternative history? Heather remains convinced that Christendom was a “product of calculation rather than conviction” (586). Even if most Europeans were not converted at the edge of a sword, “the Christianization of Europe was closely linked to the exercise of power” and was “forced conversion,” at least by modern standards (587).
Ironically, Heather arrives at the same conclusion as many evangelicals even if he begins on the opposite side. Both assume the early church’s purity was corrupted when it grew beyond its initial, devoted base. For Heather, Christianity “radically reinvented itself” as soon as it received protection from the state and ceased to be genuine (54). For someone who doesn’t believe in the Bible, Heather is confident that its testimony to persecution and marginalization is prescriptive, and Christendom is evidence of our infidelity.
A better interpretation is to appropriate the evidence Heather presents but does not seem to accept. Heather is right that Christianity does contain an inherent adaptability to various political and cultural circumstances. But the early church is just another example of adaptability alongside Christendom. We need not romanticize the former over the latter. In fact, once we unshackle ourselves from the unnecessary burden of meeting a manufactured standard of political righteousness, we can move on to the serious work of adapting to our own post-Christendom world. The challenges are many, but, as history shows, they’re nothing we haven’t faced before.
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