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Quick and Dirty Review: AD 381: Pagans, Heretics and the Christian State by Charles Freeman

I just got around to reading the book published last year by Charles Freeman, AD 381: Heretics, Pagans and the Christian State.  This is a much neglected and thus little-known subject for the most part, and the year in question is even more obscure.  But as Freeman shows, it is central to the development of western culture in general and the development of church-state relations in particular.  For it is in this year that the move was made by the Roman emperor Theododius to codify, not just a particular religion as the only licit religion of the empire, but a particular flavor of that religion as well.  As Freeman demonstrates, placing the imperial might behind one sect of what had been a broad stream of early Christian belief had profound consequences both inside and outside of the church.

Inside the church, the shift led to a closure of theological debates that had ranged freely and vigorously as a fundamental aspect of Christian practice since the first century in the eastern half of the Roman empire.  The western church , as Freeman notes, was not nearly as steeped in the culture of Greek philosophical speculation as their counterparts in the east had been, and this, combined with the depredations of invasion and war from the Germanic and Central Asian tribes which menaced and overran the northern and western borders especially from the third century onwards, meant that conditions for such widespread and in-depth theological conversations never were available there.  But in the east, they were the dominant feature of church life, which was something that seemed to surprise Constantine after his move to bring the church into his political orbit in the first quarter of the fourth century, who apparently expected everybody to believe the same thing.  This part of the story is well-known:  Constantine ends the persecution begun under Diocletian, his predecessor, and then takes the clergy onto the state payrolls and makes their churches into public works projects.   He presided over the Council at his summer palace of Nicaea in 325 CE in an attempt to break the logjam of argument and animus that had arisen over the debates between various eastern factions over the relationship between Jesus and God, famously offering the formula homoousios, or “same substance,” as the way forward.  The followers of the presbyter Arius, who had argued that Jesus was subordinate to the Father, lost the argument that day, and so the average person who knows anything about the Nicene Council up to this point and who knows that the Nicene Creed is the defining theological statement for orthodox Christian belief down to the present imagine that this was the end of the story.  Au contraire.

Everybody left Nicaea, even the “losers” and pretty much went back home to spin the council as they saw fit, continuing to teach and preach what they had been previously.  There wasn’t any precedent for imperial interference in church doctrinal debates, and so people who didn’t like the Nicene formula, a considerable number, or people who hadn’t been invited to the council in the first place, the entire western church, kept doing what they had been doing all along.  Freeman skillfully fills in the details of what happened after.  Lyndon Johnson famously said that there are two things that one never wants to see being made: legislation and sausage.  A third category of “creedal formulae” might be added here as a codicil.  This was an ugly process, too convoluted to detail here.  But the short of it is that, more than fifty years later, the matter was not settled, and it was into that situation that an emperor who was prepared to enforce his decision by force imposed on the church what became a lasting, and fateful, solution.

This decision by Theodosius also had profound consequences for the state as well as the church.  Even as the emperors interceded to make theological decisions, they saw the erosion of some of the temporal power of their office begin to move in the direction of the bishops, who were no longer outsiders but considerable players in local and regional politics.  Freeman gives a detailed account of the rise and development of Bishop Ambrose of Milan, who was the model of this new breed of ecclesiastical leader.  Ambrose was already a force to be reckoned with in northern Italy when he was nominated to be a bishop, but he hadn’t even been baptized yet! This kind of thing would come to be the norm rather than the exception as time passed; any student of the Reformation knows that it was a huge problem a thousand years later.  But Freeman puts its roots here.

This move to privilege one sect of Christianity over all others also led to violence against opponents whose views differed.  Freeman gives us the details of the first execution for “heresy” as well as the persecutions, confiscations, expulsions and lesser penalties wrought on the disagreeable by the emperor and his theologians.  He also gives us the details of how this attitude towards the stiff-necked translated into the rise of Christian anti-semitism.

Above all, what Freeman laments is the demise of the vibrant intellectual culture that comes in the wake of this development, symbolized by the closure in the fifth century of Plato’s Academy after nearly 900 years of continuous teaching.  Freeman deals with this more extensively in his book The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason, which overlaps with some of what is in AD 381. It is the ending of this culture of learned debate, of wrestling with complex philosophical issues, which started with the premise that there are limits to the human mind and that there are thus some issues that will always remain unknowable that Freeman bemoans throughout the book.  For the church of late antiquity found such a culture that believed and acted this way as a threat to its growing status.  And the emperors whose political power increasingly came to be tethered to the support of the church thus went along with the bishops’ demands as the necessary precondition of remaining on top.

This is a well-documented, cogently argued book that would benefit anyone interested in Christian theology, church-state relations, or the development of Western culture in general.

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