I turned the last page of Henry Chadwick’s expansive yet concise The Early Church
yesterday. Most of my previous reading has been focused more on the development of Christian dogma and less on the historical and political circumstances surrounding and influencing dogmatic development. Chadwick’s book is somewhat of a synthesis of these three aspects. He writes in a way that is at times sympathetic and more often critical.
There is much to cringe at when one examines Church history. There is much that is ugly and bitter and quite complex and confusing. Power and authority and all that these two words entail (corruption, etc.) are impossible to avoid.
But what interests me is the fact that Christianity, though it developed in the midst Imperial institutions, was never harnessed by them. What the Councils of the Church found themselves defending was nothing more than the common Christian experience of the Church. The chaotic and at times esoteric debates on the Trinity during the reign of Constantine and beyond may seem like the musings of men who had too much time and power, until one realizes that the people of the Church were worshipping Jesus and the Spirit as God, and would accept nothing less than a creed that spoke of them as such. Nicene orthodox dogma was no more than a codification and acceptance of the charismatic worship of the Christian people, “God inhabiting the prayers of His people”, as the Scriptures spoke of. It is interesting to note that Arianism (the denial of Christ’s divinity) was for a long while the chosen religion of not only the Emperor but of the ruling social elite. But Arianism was condemned because the Christian people could not stand it and raised up leaders, such as Athanasius, to fight against it and conquer. Though orthodox emperors held much power in the way of forcefully promoting orthodoxy, unorthodox emperors were never able to promote heresy for very long, and soon found themselves replaced.
To be sure, many sins were committed as sinful people fought over the truths of God, but being that these were (and are) God’s truths, they were expressed and declared and believed nonetheless.