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Month: October 2016

It’s the 300th Post at Resurrecting Orthodoxy! Here’s a 2 for 1 Deal: AiG on…BioLogos and Hugh Ross!

It’s the 300th Post at Resurrecting Orthodoxy! Here’s a 2 for 1 Deal: AiG on…BioLogos and Hugh Ross!

I have not been posting much these days, due to the fact I’ve been occupied with a few other projects. But for this post, my 300th post, I thought I’d dig out of the vault two short reactions I wrote on two posts by Ken Ham in which he attacks Deborah Haarsma at BioLogos, as well as the Old Earth Creationist Hugh Ross. These two blurbs did not make it into my book, The Heresy of Ham, but I thought I’d bring them out to the light of day for my 300th post.

Don’t Share Table with…Deborah Haarsma…
deborah-haarsmaIn an October 14, 2014 post entitled, “Should I Have Dinner with BioLogos?” Ken Ham discusses a recent offer Dr. Deborah Haarsma, the president of the theistic evolution organization BioLogos, made to him to meet, along with Hugh Ross, a progressive creationist, for dinner and discuss their differences regarding the “creation/evolution debate.” Instead of taking her up on her offer, and instead of even writing a blog post that tries to respectfully dialogue/debate with her on the issue of evolution, Ham decided to respond with what can be considered nothing less than inflammatory attacks.

He immediately warned his readers that, “just because someone states they believe the Bible is inspired or authoritative does not mean they take it as written!” He then proceeded to accuse Haarsma of “double-speak,” and actually said, “People like Dr. Haarsma make it sound like they have such a high view of the Bible, whereas in reality, she has a low view of Scripture and a high view of man’s fallible beliefs about origins!”

Of course, we must ask, “What does it mean to ‘take the Bible as written’?” What is a ‘high’ and ‘low’ view of the Bible?” Ham’s problem is that he is assuming that a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-11 is the inspired, original, intended message that God wanted to convey to the ancient Israelites. He is equating his faulty interpretation with God’s Word itself. Therefore, whenever he comes across Christian who does not think Genesis 1-11 demands the view that the universe is only 6,000 years old, instead of even considering that he might be wrong, and instead of hearing that person’s argument, Ken Ham immediately assumes it is an attack on God’s Word, and therefore proceeds to “defend the Bible” at all costs—never realizing that he, in fact, is not defending the Bible, but merely his own opinion of the Bible. Of course it is okay to defend your view, but Ham’s problem is that he thinks his interpretation is God’s Word.

Ham then mockingly says that Haarsma simply wants him to “agree to disagree,” and that “she does not really want me to judge her view against Scripture….” After that, Ham then proceeds to equate himself and AiG with the watchman in Ezekiel, “to warn people about those who undermine the authority of God’s Word. We have written a number of articles on the AiG website to warn people that compromising God’s Word in Genesis is an authority issue, a gospel issue, and, indirectly, a salvation issue.”

Now, the amazing thing about this comment is that earlier he had accused Haarsma of “double-speak,” because she said she believed the Bible was inspired and authoritative, but didn’t hold Genesis 1-11 to be a historical account of creation. As you can see throughout his posts, Ham always takes issue with anyone who accuses him of making a literal reading of Genesis 1-11 a “salvation issue.” Yet right here, as well as many other places on his blog, he turns around and says that very thing: “it is a gospel issues, and a salvation issue.”

Not surprisingly, Ham rejected Haarsma’s offer for dinner to talk about their views. The interesting thing, though, was the way he voiced his rejection of the offer:

“I’m reminded of how Nehemiah responded when opponents who knew what he was doing and why—and they knew what Nehemiah believed (and rejected his stand)—wanted to meet with him: Now it happened when Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab, and the rest of our enemies heard that I had rebuilt the wall, and that there were no breaks left in it (though at that time I had not hung the doors in the gates), that Sanballat and Geshem sent to me, saying, “Come, let us meet together among the villages in the plain of Ono . . . ” (Nehemiah 6:1–2)

He clearly portrays himself as Nehemiah, and BioLogos as the enemies of God’s people. In Ham’s view, people like Haarsma are Samaritans with whom he will refuse to have anything to do with. But then, in yet another impressive flourish of double-speak, Ham ends his post with the following: “Now, of course, I don’t consider Dr. Ross a personal enemy (as Nehemiah considered some of his detractors)—he is actually a pleasant person. But he is what I would call an enemy of biblical authority.” This is another recurring tactic of Ham: saying something like, “I’m not saying he’s not a Christian, or my enemy…BUT HE’S AN ENEMY OF THE BIBLE!”

The last thing Ham says in this post is, “We will just continue to be busy proclaiming the gospel message with authority!” But here’s the thing, whose authority is Ham using to proclaim his message? In addition, how does arguing for a 6,000 year old universe constitute “proclaiming the gospel message”?

Hugh Ross: Master Deceiver and Bible Twister…
hamrosstbnIn a September 27, 2014 post entitled, “Hugh Ross Twists the Bible to Fit Man’s Fallible Opinions,” Ken Ham takes issue with Hugh Ross, a well-known progressive creationist, calling him “one of the compromisers of our day who is leading generations astray with his teaching that undermines biblical authority.” Ham describes Ross and his work in the following manner:

“Hugh Ross twists the Bible to fit man’s fallible opinions about origins, embracing cosmological evolution and geological evolution. While he does not accept biological evolution as such (though he still accepts the basic evolutionary progression over millions of years, but claims God kept stepping in to create the millions of species, over time), he is enamored with whatever else evolutionary secular scientists have to say.”

To that, we can simply say no, he is not trying to “twist the Bible to fit man’s fallible opinions about origins.” He is just wrestling with the text of Genesis 1-11 and trying to understand it as best he can, and that’s okay, even if he ends up being wrong on a point or two. The reason that’s okay is because, contrary to what Ken Ham claims, Genesis 1-11 simply is not a “historical eye-witness account” of the origins of the material universe.

But Ken Ham doesn’t see it that way. For Ken Ham, if you deviate at all from his YEC interpretation of Genesis 1-11, you are compromising Scripture, and trying to “conform to secular historical science.” But the thing is, there is no such thing as “secular historical science.” Science is science, period. Just because atheists like Richard Dawkins try to highjack the legitimate scientific enterprise to make it supposedly “prove atheism” doesn’t mean that the actual legitimate scientific enterprise is “secular” or “atheist.”

In any case, in light of other things he says time and time again about how if you don’t interpret Genesis 1-11 as being an eye-witness account of creation a mere 6,000 years ago then you’re casting doubt on the Bible, and you can’t believe in the resurrection, and so it really is a salvation issue—it is in this post that Ham makes an astonishing claim: “We at Answers in Genesis are biblical young-earth creationists, and we have never claimed that what a person believes about origins is a salvation issue.”

So let’s be clear, YEC isn’t a salvation issue, but then elsewhere Ham says it is a salvation issue. Not only is that logically incoherent, it is actually cultish double-speak.

Ham then alludes to one of his books, Already Gone, and make the follow claim as to why two-thirds of young people are leaving the church in America by the time they get to college:

“…the research we detailed in the book Already Gone shows clearly that the teaching of evolution and/or millions of years is a major factor in these young people doubting and then disbelieving Scripture.”

Well, I’ve read the book, and to the point: Ken Ham’s research doesn’t show that at all. In fact “evolution” doesn’t even rank in the top ten reasons why young people surveyed left the church. How can he claim such a thing when his own research contradicts what he is claiming?

Ham then claims that when someone puts forth the idea that Genesis 1-11 is not meant to be read as literal history, that person is putting “stumbling blocks to saving faith in Jesus Christ.” Because for Ham, to suggest that Genesis 1-11 be read as anything other than literal history is saying that the Bible can’t be trusted.

Ham even calls the “Big Bang” a “Bible-denying notion,” and reasserts his claim that the Bible clearly teaches that the universe is “only about 6,000 years old.” He even boasts about how his fellow young earth creationists have models that suggest how light from distant reaches of the universe made it to earth within that 6,000 year time frame. Mind you, he doesn’t explain what those models are. Fortunately, as I’ve mentioned early, I did my research, and I know what AiG suggests—time zones in space! I’m sorry, that is hardly a model that can be considered scientifically sound in any way, shape, or form.

All About MYTH: A Quick Response to a Facebook Discussion on Myth, the Gospels, and Jesus

All About MYTH: A Quick Response to a Facebook Discussion on Myth, the Gospels, and Jesus

I have not been posting too much this month because I have been busy with other things. Nevertheless, in light of a recent extensive Facebook discussion (and since I had to get my mind off the Cubs meltdown in the World Series), I thought I’d write this quick post. Let me say up front, I know it probably is not completely thorough, but hopefully it is worth the read.

When using the term “myth,” you have to be clear on HOW you are using it. If you are using it in the modern-slang sense, then “myth” is going to mean whatever you want it to mean, and you’re going to use it liberally to as a way to disparage any story or claim you deem false or impossible.

But if you are going to seriously try and understand ancient literature, you have to use the term “myth” the way it is used in scholarship when discussing ancient literature. As far as that is concerned, the fundamental question for any ancient work is “What is its LITERARY GENRE?” When you ask that question, you realize that the term “myth” is simply a genre of ancient literature, as opposed to ancient law code, poetry, legend, biography, etc.


Generally speaking, the literary genre of myth (A) involves “the gods,” and (B) is NOT considered to be about historical events. The events of Marduk, Baal, Zeus, etc. all take place in a mythic realm, outside of time and space and history. The purpose of ancient myth is not to convey history, but rather to establish the basic “worldview” of that given culture.

In ancient pagan times, despite different cultures having different gods/goddesses and stories, the basic pagan worldview was the same: (A) the gods were associated with nature and were wholly unpredictable, immoral, and dangerous; (B) creation itself was made from the dead carcass of defeated gods (i.e. a rotting corpse); and (C) human beings were made to be worthless slaves of the gods, often created out of the blood or excrement of defeated gods.

Those myths taught and reinforced that worldview; they weren’t trying to convey historical events. Incidentally, that’s why ancient pagan cultures didn’t write “history.” Time was seen as cyclical, with events on earth just corresponding to the mythological stories of the gods. Even when ancient pagan kings wrote of their deeds in their annals, they were not written as “history.”

With the Old Testament, a radical shift in worldview and writing occurred. In the Old Testament, although we find similar mythological language in the early chapters of Genesis, as well as a few passages in Isaiah (27:1), Job (9:13; Ch. 41), and the Psalms (74:13-14; 77:16; 89:9-10; 104:7), the OT writers do something radically different: in Genesis 1-11 they actually blow up that ancient pagan worldview by insisting (A) there is one God, who is good and concerned with justice; (B) creation is good and orderly, and not the result of a battle between gods, with it being made out of the carcass of the loser; and (C) human beings are made in the image of the true God, and therefore have dignity and worth. And then they take that radically different worldview that is laid out in Genesis 1-11, and they proceed to tie it in to actual history.

alterThat insistence on the dignity and freedom of human beings is what inspired the writers of the Old Testament to relate the history of their people. In fact, Robert Alter calls much of the Hebrew narrative “fictionalized history” or “historicized fiction,” meaning that the Hebrews’ insistence on the dignity of human beings inspired them to want to tell stories of the human beings in their history as a people. In that sense, it was the Old Testament that essentially created a whole different genre of writing by breaking away from the standard pagan writing of myth, and focusing on telling actual stories about human beings who are worth writing about. And when you consider that, it would be wrong to equate “myth” with “fiction,” because “fiction” is still nevertheless set within time and space and history. Pride and Prejudice is fiction; Atrahasis is myth.

The unique thing about the Old Testament is that, even though it starts out with its own mythological stories about creation and the reality of the human race (Genesis 1-11), it then weaves those early chapters into actual historical time and place, with real people and events. Although it still often uses certain mythological imagery when describing certain historical events, the stories from Abraham onwards are not considered “myth.” After all, they purport to be about historical people in actual history.

When you get to the New Testament, it would also be incorrect to describe the gospels as “myth.” Biblical scholars will tell you that they are ancient historical biographies (at least Matthew, Mark, and Luke…John is somewhat different). They are filled with historical people and places, and therefore are clearly purporting to convey real historical events.

Here is where the confusion comes. Skeptics point to the miracle stories and the resurrection, and say, “Those cannot happen, therefore the gospels are a ‘myth.” But what those skeptics are really saying is, “We don’t believe miracles or a resurrection are possible, therefore the gospels aren’t true.”

But a story containing a claim that one doesn’t think possible does not make that story a “myth.” The gospels are still ancient historical biographies, even if they contain some claims that one might think impossible.

lewisNow yes, as with various passages in the Old Testament, the gospels contain a number of things that parallel certain myths. This is what makes them unique, for despite that, the writers are still purporting that these things actually happened in history, not some timeless mythic realm. This is the thing that ultimately helped convince C.S. Lewis to become a Christian. He was a literature professor, and he knew myth when he read it, and he knew a historical account when he read it. What struck him with the gospels is that they were claiming that these things really happened. It was “myth invading history,” if you will.

For example, in the Canaanite mythological Baal cycle, Baal at one point dies, then is brought back to life—this was understood, not as a historical claim, but as a mythical way to understand the change of seasons (think also of the Greek myth of Demeter). But in the gospels, the claim is that Jesus died and rose again in history; it wasn’t some mythical story to explain agriculture and harvest.

Having said all that, even if one doesn’t believe the claims made in the gospels regarding Jesus’ miracles and resurrection, one should not call the gospels “myth,” or the story of Jesus a “myth.” That would be mislabeling the genre of literature that it is. One can certainly say, “The gospels are historical biographies, and Jesus was a real person who seems to have led a messianic movement, but who was crucified by Pilate after he ran afoul of the Jewish religious leaders in the temple—but I just don’t believe those claims of miracles and the resurrection.” But one cannot be careless with the use of the term, and just label the gospels “myth” simply because you don’t believe some of the claims found in them.

So to sum up:

  1. Myths aren’t about historical events; they take place outside of time and space.
  2. Myths are intended to put forth the general worldview of a given culture. In regards to the Old Testament, if “all the world (and world history) is a stage,” the founding myths in Genesis 1-11 provide the backdrop to the stage of world history, so that the events and characters that come across the stage are viewed and understood against that mythic backdrop on the back curtain.
  3. Therefore, the stories of Abraham, the Exodus, the judges, and the kings are not “myth.” They purport to be about real historical people, albeit written as a highly creative story (i.e. “fictionalized history”).
  4. The gospels are understood to be ancient historical biographies about the real historical person of Jesus of Nazareth.
  5. Even if one does not believe the claims of miracles and resurrection, that does not change the fact that the gospels are not “myths.”

I’m sure much more can be said. This post is just a quick response to a discussion I took part in on Facebook. But hopefully this post has been able to clarify a few misconceptions about what “myth” means and about what the gospels are.

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 17): Monaticism and Pagan Europe

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 17): Monaticism and Pagan Europe

When it comes to Church history, we must always remember that oftentimes the true impact of Christianity is to be found far away from the halls of power. While the majority of popes in the West during the Byzantine Age were turning Rome into a brothel, there were countless devout and holy men and women throughout Europe who were too busy being salt and light to a darkened European world to really care what some illegitimate, irreligious degenerate was doing in Rome. Perhaps there was no more influential man during this time than Benedict (480-543 AD), the founder of the Benedictine monastic order.

The role of monks throughout Church history and their contribution to Western civilization has long been ignored because of the stereotype that thinks “monks simply went off by themselves to pray.” Although it is true that the fundamental feature in the lives of monks was, indeed, prayer, it would be foolish and naïve to think that was all they did. In reality, most monks lived, not as solitaries, but rather in communities. In fact, it was in the monasteries where not only was learning and education preserved for Western civilization, but also, because of the tireless work of monks, where the technological and agricultural advances that have affected the world ever since found their genesis. All those things were merely by products of their main focus in life…lives devoted to prayer and contemplation.

benedictBenedict was born at the very time the western part of the empire (i.e. Western Europe) was disintegrating. As John Henry Newman has said, Benedict “…found the world, physical and social, in ruins.” And so, what Benedict and thousands of other dedicated monks did for the next few hundred years was to slowly rebuild a Christian society from the ruins of pagan ruins. Newman put it this way:

“…and his mission was to restore it in the way not of science, but of nature, not as if setting about to do it, not professing to do it by any set time, or by any rare specific, or by any series of strokes, but so quietly, patiently, gradually, that often till the work was done, it was not known to be doing. It was a restoration rather than visitation, correction, or conversion. The new work which he helped to create was a growth rather than a structure. Silent men were observed about the country, or discovered in the forest, digging, clearing and building; and other silent men, not seen, were sitting in the cold cloister, tiring their eyes and keeping their attention on the stretch, while they painfully copied and recopied the manuscripts which they had saved. There was no one who contended or cried out, or drew attention to what was going on, but by degrees the woody swamp became a hermitage, a religious house, a farm, an abbey, a village, a seminary, a school of learning and a city.”[Religion and the Rise of Western Culture 57]

This slow work must be truly appreciated, because it bears witness to a fundamental truth of societies and cultures. History books love to focus on kings and popes, political intrigues and wars. If that is all we focus on, though, we will be ignorant of the fact that the bulk of civilization is built up and developed by men and women whose names we have lost to history. There will always be a handful of names that we remember—names like Benedict—but those names really represent larger, lasting movements that endure and shape civilization in ways that dwarf the achievements of most kings and popes.

monksThe way in which Christianity ultimately defeated the pagan world and re-shaped Europe was not by means of the sword. It was by means of monastic work. Occasionally there were forced conversions (as done by Charlemagne with the Saxons), but in reality, the pagans in Europe were drawn to Christianity because they saw monasteries flourish. They came to see that it was in the monasteries where education could be found—simply put, they saw that Christianity offered a better life in the here and now. For not only in those monasteries did the monks and nuns live in community in order to remake Europe, they made it a point to love their neighbors, even pagans, in the way the Christ commanded. As Vincent Carroll points out in his book, Christianity on Trial, an early Benedict document enjoined Benedictine monks in the following manner: “Let special care be taken in reception of the poor and strangers, because in them Christ is more truly welcome” (149). And at the monastery at Cluny, the monks provided for 17,000 poor persons every year.

And, although there were moments of confrontation (as when Benedict chopped down the pagan groves), the typical habit of the monks was to reach out to the pagan society around them and show how Christ “fit in” to their worldview. They would take, for example, a pagan spring thought to be magical, would teach them that Jesus Christ gives the water of life, and would then associate that spring with a Christian saint. In effect, monks would “Christianize” pagan artifacts, sites, and stories in an attempt to translate Christ to a pagan world. It would be foolish to characterize such attempts as either unadulterated successes or shameless deceptions, for, as with everything, the results of such Christianizing attempts were mixed.

Christianity in Pagan Europe: Sometimes Lost in Translation
It should come as no surprise to find that many times, in the attempts of Catholic monks to “translation” Christianity for the pagan culture, that some things got lost in translation. In his book, The Triumph of Christianity, Rodney Stark touches upon this very issue in quite some detail. What follows is largely my summary of his main points.

One of the problems with “translating” the Gospel to pagan Europe was that pagan Europeans were, well, pagan. And being pagan, they often just added Christ and the Christian saints to their already existing pantheon of gods. This tendency can be seen in the Icelandic Landnanabok, where it is said that “Helgi the Lean ‘believed in Christ, but invoked Thor in matters of seafaring and dire necessity’” (Triumph of Christianity 196). In this sense, what often happened in pagan Europe was similar to what happened in ancient Israel. The Israelites worshipped YHWH, but often just associated Him with Egyptian bulls gods, or with the Canaanite god Baal.

Such pagan syncretism is almost inevitable. Although many pagans threw away their pagan gods and followed Christ alone, many other pagans simply incorporated Christ and the saints into their fundamental pagan worldview. It is as true today as it was then. Just look at our politics today:

there are both conservative Christians and liberal Christians who truly follow Christ, and whose political views are shaped by their Christian worldview. At the same time, there are also conservatives and liberals who claim to follow Christ, but who go a step further, and have actually tried to mold Christ into their given political image by claiming that Jesus was…a capitalist, socialist, pro-second amendment, pro-gun control, etc. I think in such instances, it is just a modern form of syncretism, but instead of incorporating Christ into a pagan religion, it is incorporating Christ into an Enlightenment, secularized political philosophy. It is an incredibly easy thing to do…be it a pagan European 1500 years ago, or a modern secular-pagan today.

Having said that, one modern objection to Christianity (as can be seen in the writings of some of the “new Atheists”) is that it seems to be so fundamentally pagan, or at least sound so pagan. I mean really, blood sacrifices? Dying and rising gods? Didn’t Christianity just borrow those things from paganism? If God wanted to forgive sins, couldn’t He have just said, “Bam! Your sins are forgiven!”? Why was it necessary to have a crucifixion, and then describe it as a “sacrifice,” hence sounding so incredibly pagan?

The answer to that objection is actually quite simple: Christ came during a time when paganism ruled the day and was the lens through which ancient society interpreted everything. The Christian message may “sound pagan” at times, but that is because the Gospel was originally addressed…to pagans. As Rodney Stark writes:

“That’s the whole point. The message of the Crucifixion sent to Greco-Roman pagans was: ‘Christ died for your sins!’ Forget offerings of a hundred or even a thousand cattle! The Christian ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). That message spoke powerfully and eloquently to a culture that took sacrifice, especially blood sacrifice, as fundamental to pleasing the gods—some of the Oriental faiths used blood from sacrificial animals to ‘wash away’ an initiate’s sins” (82).

Of course, some of the language in Christianity is going to be similar to pagan mythology. The early Christians were explaining the significance of what happened with Christ to a pagan audience. As Stark says, “the Christ story fulfilled every element of the classical hero of how a human rose to become a god” (83). C.S. Lewis described the story of Christ as a myth that had happened in history. The Greek myths may have had similar stories, but everyone knew they had never happened in history. Along comes Christ, and those “make believe” stories intersect with the Jesus Christ of history.

This communicating of the Gospel in a language that the hearers can understand is called divine accommodation. It begins with God communicating and revealing Himself in way that people can comprehend, and then Christians, in their spreading of the Gospel, do the same thing in whatever culture they are in. The fact is, human beings are always limited in their understanding, and if you want to anyone to learn anything, you have to start with where they are.

monacticismGod’s initial revelation to the Hebrews was couched in the language and symbolism of the ancient Near East. The gospels of Mark, Matthew, and John were aimed at Jewish audiences, and therefore the writers filled their gospels with quotes and allusions to the Hebrew Bible. They thus told the story of Christ within the idiom of Israel’s history. That’s how communication is effective. And that is why so often Christian monks “translated,” so to speak, the Gospel in the language of pagan Europe. That was the most effective way of communicating the Gospel.

There will be one more post on Christianity in the Byzantine Age. I’ll deal with the likes of Charlemagne and the rise and threat of Islam.

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 16)–A Hodgepodge of Information about Christianity, Slavery, and the Differences Between East and West

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 16)–A Hodgepodge of Information about Christianity, Slavery, and the Differences Between East and West

The reason why I have not posted anything in the past week or so will soon become obvious. As I’ve been looking at the next section of my “Ways of the Worldviews” manuscript, I see that it is somewhat of a hodgepodge of material, and quite frankly, I haven’t been in the mood to try to smooth out the rough edges. But today, it got me thinking: this hodgepodge of material is actually a good metaphor for what was going on in both the Eastern and Western parts of the Byzantine Empire. In fact, this “mess” is probably one of the reasons why many Christians don’t delve into Church history that much: at certain times in history, things get rather tangled and messy.

But sometimes, if you don’t want to completely comb out that bed-head mess, you do the next best thing: you comb it out enough, then put a hat on for the day, and go on with the business at hand. The next post or two will be precisely that: a bit messy, but let’s just put a hat on and move on.

The Rise of Christianity and the End of Ancient Slavery


The first thing I want to briefly touch upon is in regards to the ancient institution of slavery. It was the rise of Christianity, in both the Byzantine Age (313-1054 AD) and the later High Catholic Age (1054-1517 AD), that was responsible for bringing about the gradual end to slavery. In the ancient pagan world, slavery was no doubt a fundamental staple in pagan society. It was simply a given. Past Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle argued for it, and the Roman Empire was dependent on it. In fact, throughout history, slavery was the way great empires built their great monuments: the Egyptian pyramids, the ziggurats of Babylon, the great temples and coliseums of ancient Greece and Rome—all of it was made possible because of the ancient institution of slavery.

Although slavery was still sanctioned in the Old Testament, the system of slavery in Israel was significantly different from its pagan neighbors. Well, according to the Torah, it was supposed to be different (in reality, most times it wasn’t). But it was only with the rise of Christianity that the age old assumptions about the legitimacy of slavery itself began to be questioned. Christianity appealed greatly to slaves, for it proclaimed that in Christ, there was slave or free, Jew or Gentile, male or female—all were one in Christ, and therefore equal. Not surprisingly, early Christianity under the Roman Empire was derided for being a religion for slaves and women because it preached the equality of all human beings, regardless of class, race, or sex—that everyone was made in the image of God.

And so, with the conversion of Constantine and the dramatic rise in the influence of Christianity, it should not be surprising at all to find that the ancient practice of slavery was slowly choked out. It didn’t happen all at once, but little by little, beginning in the Byzantine Age and culminating in the High Catholic Age, Christianity killed off the ancient pagan institution of slavery. Step one was started in the early days of Christianity, when the Church accepted slaves and women in their community as equals. This equality was seen in extending the sacraments to both slaves and women. This undoubtedly attracted slaves and women to the Christian faith.

Step two came about slowly, after the conversion of the empire as a whole. The Church was able to get the State to agree to prohibit a ban on the enslavement of all Christians and Jews. As Rodney Stark points out in his book, The Victory of Reason, since so many slaves had become Christians, “…within the context of medieval Europe, that prohibition was effectively a rule of universal abolition” (28).

By the tenth century, slavery had been largely eliminated throughout Europe, all due to the Church’s efforts at social reform and justice, in light of the moral conviction stemming from the Christian faith that all human beings were created in God’s image. Simply put, the philosophical worldview and the theological convictions of the Christian faith led to a radical moral revolution in society that was able to overturn the centuries’ old practice of slavery throughout the Roman Empire. The circumstances that led to a resurgence of slavery came about later, with the discovery of the new world and the age of colonization, will be addressed at a later date.

The Different Developments of Byzantine Christianity in the East and West
Despite the many philosophical, societal, and cultural advances that came about during the Byzantine Age, it certainly was no golden age—no age ever is. For Christianity proclaims that not only are human beings created in the image of God, but they are also at the same time woefully sinful and corrupt. And power, especially political power, carries with it the seeds of corruption.

byzantine-christianityThere are a number of moving parts to hold together when trying to understand the Byzantine Age. The first thing to keep in mind is that the eastern part of the Byzantine Empire  continued and enjoyed the imperial legacy of the Roman Empire. Therefore, as Christianity took hold, it proceeded to transform a very secure, cultured and educated society. Furthermore, being a primarily Greek-influenced culture, the Byzantine Empire was steeped in the philosophical tradition. In the Byzantine Empire, a very imperial, and very Greek, Christianity was formed.

By contrast, a second thing to consider is that the fortunes of the western part of the empire were vastly different. With all the imperial power moved to Constantinople in the east, Western Europe became a backwater afterthought. With no strong central government to maintain stability, Western Europe was ripped apart by countless raiding barbarian tribes. Some were purely pagan, others had been converted to the heresy of Arianism and were therefore Arian Christians. With such chaos, people turned to the only person in Western Europe who still held any kind of real administrative position: the Bishop of Rome (aka. the Pope).

Therefore, while Christianity was transforming a thriving imperial culture in the east, Christianity was forging a path through the wilderness in the west. The pagan world had died, so the Church in the West set about the task of the re-creation of Europe. Yet because of the chaotic political situation, and because it was a Latin-influenced culture (and Latin had long been the language of the courts), the Christianity that developed in the West had a distinct difference from the Christianity in the East. The Western form of Christianity came to be couched in terms that resembled the more practical and legal-minded language of the courts, whereas the Eastern from of Christianity continued to be influenced by the more philosophical/mystical traditions of Greek thought.

A third thing to keep in mind is that the rise of Islam in the 7th century changed things drastically for both Eastern and Western Christianity. In the East, the Byzantines had to deal with the slow but steady shrinking of their empire, due to the advances by Islam. In the West, the armies of Islam never succeeded in taking over Europe, and that left breathing room for a western culture that was slowly rebuilding itself. Eventually, the aggressiveness of Islam ultimately convinced Europe to finally push back. The resulting Crusades marked the beginning of the end for the Byzantine Empire, and the rise of Western Europe under the power of the pope (i.e. the High Catholic Age).

A Bit More about Christianity in the West: Oh my, the Corruption!
While Christianity in the East was developing and transforming a still-existing imperial culture, Christianity in the West found itself on the wild frontier. From Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410 AD to the rise of Charlemagne in 800 AD, there was no over-arching central authority in Western Europe: numerous kings ruled over their own fiefdoms of limited territory. What this eventually meant was that the ecclesiastical authority of the Pope eventually morphed into a political power in its own right, in constant tension with the minor kings around him.

Now, there were a few good popes during this time who did much good. The most obvious one was Pope Leo I, who saved Rome from destruction at the hands of Attila the Hun in 452 AD. The same Pope Leo I also convinced Gaeseric the Vandal king in 455 AD to keep his pillaging of Rome to a minimum. Nevertheless, throughout this time of over 600 years in the West (410-1054 AD), the fact is that the political power invested in the papal throne lead to deep corruption, with many popes being nothing more than corrupt, petty nobles in and of themselves.

Things got so bad that by the end of the Byzantine Age, it is safe to say that the ecclesiastical institution of the Catholic Church in Western Europe was completely overrun with political corruption and moral decadence. Popes, priests, and bishops indulged in the kind of sexual decadence that would make Hugh Hefner take notice. Since religious offices were treated as plumb political positions with all the perks one could hope for, simony became a generally accepted practice, with religious positions in the church going to the highest bidder.

In The Triumph of Christianity, Rodney Stark gives two examples that illustrate the utter moral corruption within the Western Church during this time. First, he writes:

“Consider the making and unmaking of popes by Marozia (890-937), a promiscuous and domineering Roman noblewoman of the powerful Theophylact family. When she was fifteen, Marozia became the mistress of Pope Sergius III (served 904-911), who had murdered Pope Leo V (served 903) to gain the papal throne and by whom Marozia had an illegitimate son. Marozia’s mother was the mistress of Pope John X (served 914-928), whom Marozia conspired to have suffocated and replaced by Pope Leo VI (served 928), whom she quickly replaced with Stephen VII (served 928-931). At this point Marozia managed to get her illegitimate son—fathered by Pope Sergius—placed on the papal throne as Pope John XI (served 931-936).” (302)

Stark then writes:

“That so many young men with no prior religious service became popes helps explain why the moral condition of the papacy in this era can best be described as ‘squalid.’ Thus, John XII assembled a harem of young women—‘some accused him of converting the Lateran Palace into a brothel.’ He also consecrated a ten-year-old as bishop, had a cardinal castrated, and loudly invoked pagan gods when he gambled. At age 28 he died in bed with a married woman, probably killed by her irate husband. Benedict IX was an even more notorious pope. When he succeeded two of his uncles as pope, there followed the ‘spectacle of the Pope carousing and whoring his way around Rome,’ displaying himself as ‘unblushingly and arrogantly dissolute.’” (302)

Simply put, in the West during the Byzantine Age, church officials were hopelessly corrupt. If you wanted to find examples of godliness, you didn’t go to Rome. Instead, you’d go “out to the wilderness,” where thousands of monks and nuns were quietly rebuilding Europe from the ground up. But that will be the topic of the next post.

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 15): Christian Philosophy in the Byzantine Age–(Actually, This is Mostly on Augustine!)

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 15): Christian Philosophy in the Byzantine Age–(Actually, This is Mostly on Augustine!)

One of the things I have come to realize as I have read up on Christian history is that the impact Christianity had on all areas of life cannot be over-stated. Ever since the Enlightenment, Church history has largely suffered slander, whereas most people associate the time of history between the rise of Constantine and the dawn of the so-called Enlightenment as “the dark ages.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

When it comes to philosophy in particular, it must be emphasized that the rise of Christianity to prominence in the Roman Empire in no way stifled philosophical inquiry. In fact, Christian philosophers continued to use much in classical philosophy in their own arguments for the superiority of Christianity. In that respect, what was begun with the likes of Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Justin Martyr, and Tertullian, was continued with a wide-range of Christian thinkers who were not just devout churchmen, but were also philosophical giants of the time, far surpassing the Greek philosophers of the classical period.

Now, to modern readers who are largely ignorant of both early Church history and classical philosophy, debates over the relationship between the Father and the Son, the life of the Trinity, and the nature of Christ seem speculative and pointless. “You see?” they say, “Such religious debates brought hostility and terror to a previously peaceful pagan Roman Empire! Christianity destroyed the glory of ancient Rome!” We have already addressed how “the glory of ancient Rome” was nothing short of brutal and pessimistic, but we must now address the charge that the Christian debates were just the ravings of religious fanatics.

The Christian Revolution in Philosophy: Rooted in the Historical Reality of Christ
If one looks at the seven ecumenical councils, one will see that although they convened to address theological and church-related issues, many of the debates that took places at those councils were, in fact, philosophical debates. The fact is that the historical reality of the death and resurrection of Christ opened the door to a revolution in philosophy.

council-of-niceaPlato (as well as other Greek philosophers) held to the idea that the universals in the World of Forms could never directly interact with the particulars in the ever-changing material world. Yet the Christian Gospel clearly proclaimed that that was exactly what had happened: The Word became flesh. Therefore, that claim of the incarnation forced philosophers to re-think the nature of God, human beings, and the material world—and yes, the nature of Jesus Christ as well. Therefore, the issues debated in the seven ecumenical councils were not just frivolous and irrelevant “religious issues.” They were ultimately debates over the nature of reality itself: God, mankind, and the material world, with the historical reality of Christ providing the catalyst for such a revolution in philosophical thought.

Therefore, when early Church Fathers like Basil of Caesarea (330-379 AD) openly criticized classical philosophers who “willfully and voluntarily blinded themselves to knowledge of the truth,” he wasn’t attacking philosophy itself, but rather those philosophers who refused to consider the historical claims of Christianity and the impact they had on understanding the nature of reality. Basil, like the Christian thinkers before him, like the Christian thinkers of his day, and like the Christian thinkers after him, was an expert in classical philosophy who embraced the philosophical task.

My Brief Bit on Saint Augustine (354-430 AD)
st-augustineThere was one man, though, who has dominated Western thought: Saint Augustine of Hippo. Augustine’s story is fairly well-known. He is undoubtedly the most influential western Church Father, having left an incredibly significant impact on both Catholicism and Protestantism. Yet it would be wrong for anyone to characterize Augustine was not simply a theologian, or simply a bishop, or simply a churchman. Augustine may very well have been the single most significant philosopher, political thinker, and academic—Christian or pagan—of all time, at least in the West.

Although his mother was a Christian, Augustine had a pagan father, and was decidedly anti-Christian during the first part of his life, in which he was a lawyer, an orator, and an academic heavyweight. He would often ridicule Christianity for being a religion of irrationality and superstition, but after meeting the formidable Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, Augustine came to see that not only did Christ truly raise from the dead, and not only was salvation only found in Christianity, but that Christianity provided a more secure philosophical foundation for making sense of the world.

Once Augustine was baptized and later became the bishop of Hippo, he embarked on a literary career that changed Western thinking. In his work, Contra Academicos, he engaged in a rather rigorous refutation of the skepticism of the New Academy, which claimed that knowledge of the world is ultimately impossible. If that was the case, said Augustine, that even the most basic truths are questionable. This is similar to what we hear today. The man who says, “The only absolute truth in the world is that there are no absolute truths,” is uttering a nonsensical argument. For in trying to prove that there are no absolute truths, he is staking a claim that his statement is absolute truth. It would be the equivalent of a man drawing a circle, pointing to the circle, and saying, “This thing that I have just drawn, that you see before you, is not there…it does not exist.”

“I Believe in Order that I Might Understand”…What???
Augustine is also famous for saying, “I believe in order that I might understand.” Many moderns point to this statement and make the claim that even the mighty Augustine of the Christian faith was admitting that faith was irrational, unreasonable, and was antithetical to true knowledge. “Faith” and “reason” are polar opposites, and never the two will meet. Of course, that is precisely not what Augustine was saying. In fact, he was stating a profound truth when it comes to epistemology (the theory of knowing). All knowledge is based upon a presuppositional faith commitment. One’s presuppositional worldview will affect how one goes about understanding the world around them.

Perhaps an analogy will help. Everyone has presuppositional faith commitments that affect how they see and understand the world. That presuppositional faith commitment is much like a pair of glasses that will hopefully bring knowledge of the world into clearer focus. But the fact is that no human being has perfect eyesight, so to speak. Everyone needs glasses, therefore in order to attempt to “truly see” the world, everyone puts on glasses. Now, properly speaking, nobody can clearly see the glasses they put on, for as soon as they take the glasses off to look at them, their bad eyesight comes into play, and the glasses themselves are blurry to their naked eye. Once the glasses are put on, though, not only can one see and understand the particular things in the world more clearly, one will be more able to clearly see and understand the other “glasses” that other people are wearing.

Furthermore, to extend the analogy further, some glasses are better than others. A bad pair of glasses might have the wrong prescription, and might make things more blurry to the reader, so much so that it might ultimately further damage the eyes of the one who wears them. Some other glasses might improve one’s vision a little, but not fully, so that things are not seen as clearly as they could be.

With all that said, Augustine’s statement, “I believe in order that I might understand,” is really stating a fundamental epistemological truth: everyone must put on glasses in order to see clearly. In fact, it is the “putting on of the glasses,” (i.e. one’s faith commitment) that makes it possible to see and understand things in the first place. Simply put, all knowledge is dependent on faith. Or to put it another way, without faith, no knowledge is possible. And the only way to find out if a particular faith commitment is true, is to “put on its glasses,” take a walk around, and see if you are still bumping into things. If it’s the right prescription, you will have the same reaction as I did when I got my first pair of glasses at 15. I walked out of the optometrist’s office, and astonishingly remarked to my mom, “Oh, I can see the leaves on the trees!”

The Impact of Augustine on Politics
The specifics of all that Augustine wrote on are too many to address here. He wrote works refuting Manichaeanism, Donatism, and Pelagianism. He also extensively wrote about the doctrine of the Trinity, as well as numerous other topics. These controversies were all “religious,” to be sure, but they were all based on fundamental philosophical issues regarding the nature of human beings, the reality of the material world, and (obviously) the reality and nature of God. The revelation that came about in Christ affected the philosophical perceptions regarding all of these things.

city-of-godIn addition to his famous work, Confessions, in which he gave an autobiography of his life and his journey to the Christian faith, Augustine’s other ground-breaking work was City of God, written in the aftermath of the devastating sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 AD. Some have called it the first true theology of history.

Augustine also was somewhat of a political philosopher, in that he was one of the first to clearly articulate and define what the relationship between the State and the Church should be. The Church should not run the government, and neither should the State exercise power over the Church. Nevertheless, says Augustine, due to the fact that every secular empire is ultimately transitory, whereas the Church’s mission is eternal, the Church should essentially act as the moral conscience in society, and therefore the government. In his book, Christianity on Trial, Vincent Carroll sums up Augustine’s argument in this way: “Empires rise and fall in the natural order of things, but the church’s mission stands apart from any passing secular institution. Because the true church endures, it is government’s duty to take instruction from religion, not the other way around” (13).

Augustine stated that the government’s primary task was to keep order in society, and to protect its citizens from any enemies. But once that order is secured, when it comes to promoting the welfare of society, the state should listen to the moral conscience of that society, which as Augustine argued, was the Church. Augustine was wise enough to see that total separation between Church and State is an impossibility. He was also wise enough to see that there had to be a clearly role for the State, so that it would not abuse its power, and so that the Church could remain distinct from it. He argued that such a distinction was necessary, so that, far from trying to run the State, the Church could live out its mission to be the light of conscience and of God’s goodness in society.

Augustine on Genesis…and How It Impacts the Creation/Evolution Debate
Another important work of Augustine’s, especially in light of the modern “evolution vs. creationism” debate, was his Literal Commentary on Genesis. Although it might hurt the egos of many six-day creationists, Augustine had some very harsh words for those who willingly reject scientific knowledge about the created order, and instead cling to a wooden and simplistic interpretation of Genesis 1-11:

on-genesis“Even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to, as being certain from reason and experience. Now it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel [a non-Christian] to hear a Christian…talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.”

At the same time, though, Augustine was quick to point out that an intricate knowledge of the created order was actually not that important, and actually quite irrelevant, in living a truly Christian life:

“…there is no need to be dismayed if Christians are ignorant about the properties and the number of the basic elements of nature, or about the motion, order, and deviations of the stars, the map of the heavens, the kinds and nature of animals, plants, stones, springs, rivers, and mountains… For the Christian, it is enough to believe that the cause of all created things…is…the goodness of the Creator.”

For Augustine, as should be for every Christian today, all truth was God’s truth, even if it was found in the works of pagans (or atheists!). Christians who reject certain truths, simply because they are discovered or misused by non-Christians, are not doing anyone any favors. As Augustine stated, not only do they invite derision of the Christian faith, but they are missing an opportunity to further fulfill their calling as image-bearers of God, namely to offer up everything to God to further His kingdom and bring Him glory.

Let’s Sum Up…With a Bit of Sex
Augustine, as brilliant as he was, was not infallible or perfect. I would take issue with a number of his theological and philosophical claims, most notably his notion of Original Sin. No, I don’t deny that all human beings are born sinful, but Augustine’s claim that sex would have been passionless before Adam and Eve sinned, and that the pleasure part and passion of sex was a result of sin—well, that’s rather odd. According to Augustine, the reason why you are sinful is that you were conceived in sin—literally. Your mom and dad were in the throes of passion when they conceived you—such passion that causes the man to have an erection that he can’t control. Therefore, you were conceived in a sinful act in which your mom and dad were not in control of their passions. In Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin, sin becomes the ultimate STD.

Granted, that is an incredibly over-simplistic description of Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin, and I haven’t even touched upon the larger historical background and teaching of what others were saying about the topic at the time—but my point is simple: Augustine didn’t get everything right! Nevertheless, in Augustine we see an example of a Christian using his talents and gifts to build up the Church, and fully engage with (and ultimately transform) the culture around him. Simply put, the one man who most affected Western civilization was Augustine.

In any case, let me recommend a great movie on Augustine: Restless Heart. Here’s the trailer.

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 14): The Rise of Constantine and the Development of Byzantine Christianity

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 14): The Rise of Constantine and the Development of Byzantine Christianity

milvian-bridgeOn October 28th, 312 AD, the tetrarch Constantine defeated his fellow tetrarch Maxentius, at the battle of the Milvian Bridge. The night before the battle Constantine had a heavenly vision—the famous Chi-Rho (the first two letters in the name “Christ”)—and heard a voice say, “In this, conquer!” That experience marked Constantine’s conversion to Christianity. He was convinced that he was to go into battle in the name of the Christian God. After a decisive victory over Maxentius, Constantine consolidated his power and became the emperor of the western part of the Roman Empire, with Licinius being the eastern emperor.

In 313 AD, Constantine and Licinius issued the famous Edict of Milan, which granted full tolerance for all the religions of the empire, including Christianity. With that one edict, the persecution of Christians came to an end. Eventually, though, Constantine went to war with Licinius when Licinius began to persecute Christians in the east again, and by 325 AD, Constantine was the sole emperor of a unified Roman Empire.

The conversion of Constantine was a watershed moment in both Christianity and Western civilization. For the previous 300 years, Christians had been a persecuted minority within a crumbling and chaotic pagan culture. Although during that time Christianity was slowly but surely growing in numbers, the conversion of Constantine vaulted it to prestige and imperial favor. Christianity thus became the major re-shaping influence in a pagan world that was crumbling, decimated, desolate, and dying.

The Two Cultural Realities of the East and West
Of course, exactly how it re-shaped the old pagan world was entirely determined by which part of the empire you happened to be in. This brings us to another basic historical reality if we are to understand the evolution of Western civilization. When Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome in the west to Constantinople in the east, all the power, majesty, influence and interest of the empire shifted to the east as well. Consequently, with all the imperial might having shifted east, the western part of the empire was soon neglected, and became vulnerable to various barbarian groups like the Goths, Vandals, and even Attila the Hun.

Given the two different cultural realities of East and West, Christianity developed much differently in the East than it did in the West. Christianity in the East developed within an empire that was still at the height of its glory: the structure of society was still stable, and Church leaders, with imperial backing, were able to influence already-existing institutions within Byzantine society. Christianity in the West, on the other hand, developed in what we might called the “wild west” of Europe, where there was no central authority and all the structures of society had been decimated. Therefore, within the Byzantine Age, there are really two societies that need to be understood separately.

constantineContrary to what many modern historians claim, Constantine’s conversion did not change Christianity from a persecuted religion to an imperial-backed persecuting religion that sought to stamp out all competition. And it certainly did not signal the death knell for reason, learning, philosophy and culture. In that respect, when Charles Freeman says, in his book The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason (as if the title itself isn’t a dead giveaway!), “The imposition of orthodoxy went hand in hand with a stifling of any form of independent reasoning. By the fifth century, not only was rational thought been suppressed, but there has been a substitution for it of ‘mystery, magic, and authority,’” we must call foul. Orthodox Christianity was never imposed on the populace by emperors like Constantine, and it certainly did not stifle rational thought. Such a narrative by Freeman and others might serve the purposes of overzealous and dishonest modern propagandists, and it might help the sales of fanciful and misleading novels like The Da Vinci Code, but it simply is not dealing with reality.

Politically Speaking: Constantine
Politically-speaking, Constantine’s conversion decidedly didn’t change the political structure of the Empire. It did, though, supply the Church with more clout, power, and influence in society. We must remember that it was Constantine who called for the first official Church Council that took place in Nicaea, at his royal palace nonetheless, in 325 AD. Constantine thus lavished favors and money upon the Church because he saw that it had a history of caring for the poor and needy. It was clear that Constantine wanted to support the Church in its efforts to be Christ to Roman society and to care for those living in the margins. In fact, we have documents that are believed are from the Council of Nicaea in which Constantine ordered that hospitals were to be erected in every city of the Empire. This is of vital importance, for the Christian hospitals did not serve just the rich and influential. What set them apart was that they cared for the sick, regardless of the person’s status in society.

The results, therefore, of having a Christian emperor and a more influential church, were overwhelmingly positive. Contrary to popular opinion, Constantine did not go about trying to suppress paganism. The fact is that there was no need to…paganism was already a crumbling institutional relic of the past. Constantine never even ordered the closing of any pagan temples. In fact, he did little to change the long imperial tradition of allowing some of the imperial money going to subsidize pagan temples. Incidentally, this is why some claim that Constantine really was a pagan. But let’s be clear, despite what many modern historians argue, Constantine could not have been a fanatical Christian who persecuted pagans and, at the same time, a committed pagan.

No—the fact was that he was a Christian, but as the emperor, he did not use his political power to attack or even undercut the pagan traditions within the empire. He refused to use imperial might and the power of the state to attack or suppress non-Christians. In fact, he went out of his way to protect his citizens from any kind of religious persecution. His Edict of Milan in 313 AD forbid persecution of Christians. He also prevented Jews from attacking any of their fellow Jews who converted to Christianity. In Triumph of Christianity, Rodney Stark points out, “Moreover, this is consistent with Constantine’s order early in the fourth century ‘that Jews be restrained from attacking members of their community who converted to Christianity…’” (78).

In his Edict to the Eastern Provincials in 324 AD, Constantine once again affirmed his commitment to religious tolerance and accommodation and his rejection of any kind of coercive form of conversion.

Finally, in his Edict to the Palestinians in 322 AD, Constantine made reference to “God” but never mentioned “Christ.” This is significant, because it shows that Constantine was not a religious zealot. He was well aware that a large portion of the empire was still pagan, and he did not want to give offense—and so, he used terms (i.e. “God”) that would be familiar to both Christians and pagans. As Rodney Stark has said, “…in both word and deed Constantine supported religious pluralism, even while making his own commitment to Christianity explicit. In fact, during Constantine’s reign, ‘friendships between Christian bishops and pagan grandees’ were well known, and the many examples of the ‘peaceful intermingling of pagan and Christian thought may…be thought of as proof of the success of [his] policy’ of consensus and pluralism” (179-180).

But not only did Constantine not persecute pagans, he continued to actively appoint prominent pagans to high positions in government. Even Theodosius, the emperor who officially outlawed paganism when he made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in 391 AD, still actually appointed just as many pagans to government positions of consuls and prefects as he did Christians (See Triumph 192). The fact is that there were very astute and capable pagan philosophers, generals, and statesmen throughout the empire. Emperors like Constantine and Theodosius knew this full well, and so they continued to appoint pagans to various, high-ranking positions in his government.

Why would Constantine, a Christian emperor, do such a thing? The answer is that he was not a fool. He had been given a top-notch education in military and classical philosophy, and he was simply continuing the logical implications of the teachings of Christian philosophers like Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria: namely, that there was much good in pagan philosophy, and that as a Christian, he could endorse and encourage the pursuit of truth, because all truth is God’s truth, no matter where it may be found.

Theodosius vs. Ambrose—The Shocking Relationship Between Church and State
stambrose_w_theodosiusIncidentally, there were some very interesting circumstances surrounding Theodosius’ making Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. It was in 391 AD that he banned “public and private sacrifices to the gods, not only blood sacrifices, but also ‘such pagan devotions as sprinkling incense on altars, hanging sacred fillets on trees and raising turf altars” (Triumph, 190). It had been only one year earlier that Theodosius sent troops to Thessalonica to slaughter 7,000 protestors to his rule. Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, had urged Theodosius not to do it, but the emperor ignored Ambrose and went ahead with his order.

In response, Ambrose did something that was unheard of: he stood up to the Emperor. He refused to let Theodosius take part in the Holy Eucharist until Theodosius repented of his actions. Ambrose’ actions made it clear: moral authority came, not from the Emperor, but from the God, through the Church. The Emperor was not above God’s Law, and it was the job of the Church to hold the Emperor accountable.

Amazingly, Theodosius did something equally unheard of: he submitted to Ambrose’s call to repent. He acknowledged that he too, although the Emperor, was not above God’s Law and the moral authority of the Church. Therefore, we must see that his making Christianity the official religion of Rome was more an acknowledgement of his submission to the moral authority of the Church, than it was some sort of heavy-handed persecution of paganism.  Still, we must remember that although Theodosius outlawed pagan practices, he still was somewhat hypocritical about it. Not only did he not persecute pagans, but he continued to appoint them to positions within his government. Therefore, we must see his proclamation to be more ceremonial than anything.

In any case, as with Constantine, Theodosius’ main political concern was the stability and unity of the empire. For that reason, neither man actively suppressed or persecuted paganism. In that respect, it was a Christian emperor who introduced true religious tolerance to the western world. Before Constantine, religious tolerance was dependent on the honoring and worshipping of the emperor, and in that respect, it wasn’t true tolerance. And even when Theodosius made paganism officially illegal, in reality he did nothing to persecute pagans.

The Politics and Achievements of Emperors Arcadius and Justinian
Hence, even a few years later in 400 AD, the emperor Arcadius followed in Theodosius’ footsteps by essentially paying only lip-service toward the illegality of paganism. When he was urged to destroy the pagan temple in Gaza, he remarked, “I know that the city is full of idols, but is shows [devotion] in paying its taxes…. If we suddenly terrorize these people, they will run away and we will lose considerable revenues” (Triumph 191).

Still another later emperor, Justinian, made further strides in the political sphere by completely restructuring Roman law. Justinian’s Law Code (529-534 AD) was a tremendous feat that brought about a much needed reform of ancient Roman law. In it, he specifically addressed the issue of tolerance: “We especially command those persons who are truly Christians, or who are said to be so, that they should not abuse the authority of religion and dare to lay violent hands on Jews and pagans, who are living quietly and attempting nothing disorderly or contrary to law.”

hagia-sophiaNot only did Justinian completely restructure the Roman law code, he’s also most famous for building what is arguably the greatest, most beautiful church in Christian history: Hagia Sophia. From the time of its construction in 537 AD to the time the Turks took Constantinople in 1453 AD, Hagia Sophia was the center of the Christian world. It took a mere five years to build, and 1500 year later, if one visits Istanbul and walks through those doors, one cannot help but be struck by its beauty. When I was 24 years old, I had a one day layover in Istanbul, and decided to see some of the sites. I vaguely knew about “some old church” named Hagia Sophia, but when I went inside, I was overwhelmed by the history and holiness that just seemed to saturate the very stone. No words can describe it.

24 year old Joel, outside of Hagia Sophia, in 1994.

That being said, the fact that the emperor had become a Christian was going to have inevitable consequences. Political and religious spheres would eventually intermingle and open the door to a new set of challenges, namely, what should the relationship between the Church and State be? That is a question that has challenged Western society ever since.

Summing Up
Clearly, a mere 2,000 word post cannot even begin to scratch the surface of the religious and political history of 1,000 years of Byzantine Christianity. But I wanted to address the false accusation put forth in this day and age that once Constantine became a Christian, that Christianity instantaneously turned into a fanatical, persecuting religion that sought to crush all other religions and force people, through terror and intimidation, to become Christians.

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 13): The Byzantine Age (313 AD-1054 AD)–The “Middle Ages” that Never Were

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 13): The Byzantine Age (313 AD-1054 AD)–The “Middle Ages” that Never Were

The “Middle Ages” That Never Were
Most history books lump the time between the rise of Constantine and the Renaissance as the “Middle Ages,” or the “Medieval Period,” or the “Dark Ages.” As most people have now just come to assume, ancient Greece and Rome was a golden age of philosophy and reason, but then when Christianity came on the scene, the fanatical Church persecuted peace-loving pagans, rejected their philosophy and science, and ushered in 1,000 years of intellectual darkness, during with time superstition and ignorance reigned supreme as the Church took power and ran Europe into the ground. Finally, with the “Renaissance” and “Enlightenment,” all that classical learning was rediscovered and tyranny of the Church slowly came to lose its grip on Europe. The superstition of irrational faith soon gave way to the “light” of science and reason…hence, the “Enlightenment.”

Enjoy a bit of humor from Monty Python along these lines:

Well, to cut to the chase, that historical narrative that has dominated Western thinking for the past 200 years is completely false. Such labels like “Dark Ages,” “Renaissance,” and “Enlightenment” are historically simplistic and naïve at best, and positively slanderous at worst. The very labels were actually made up by anti-Catholic propagandists during the so-called “Enlightenment” in an attempt to disparage the previous 1,000 years of history as being shrouded in darkness, superstition, ignorance, and fear, all due to the fact that the Church was in charge of society. Therefore, with the “dawn” of science and rational thought, the so-called “Enlightenment” thinkers portrayed themselves as being the true “lights of the world,” as opposed to the darkness of Christianity.

Julian the Apostate

Such Enlightenment propagandists, not surprisingly, looked back at ancient paganism as if it were a golden age of culture and learning. As Rodney Stark, in his book The Triumph of Christianity, points out, Edward Gibbon (1737-1784) claimed “the triumph of Christianity was produced by ‘intolerant zeal.’ Pagans were unable to survive this militant Christian onslaught because they were, in Gibbon’s oft-quoted phrase, imbued with ‘the mild spirit of antiquity’” (183). Likewise, Jonathan Kirsch, in his book God Against the Gods, lamented how close Julian the Apostate had come to restoring that golden age of paganism. He wrote, “…it is tantalizing to consider how close he [Julian] came to bringing the spirit of respect and tolerance back into Roman government and thus back into the roots of Western civilization, and even more tantalizing to consider how different our benighted world might have been if he had succeeded’” (Triumph, 183).

I’ll say it again: anyone who knows the actual history about life in the ancient world will know such comments for what they are: ignorant Enlightenment propaganda. As a matter of historical fact, it must be pointed out that it wasn’t until 391 AD, during the reign of Theodosius, that Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire—after Julian the Apostate’s attempt to destroy Christianity. Constantine did not make Christianity the official religion of the empire. What prompted Theodosius to do so is that Julian’s attempt to force paganism onto an increasingly Christian populace brought back fears of Diocletian’s violent persecution at the beginning of the fourth century. So much for such “tolerant paganism.”

For that matter, as we will see in the next few posts, the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire hardly meant that Christians actively persecuted pagans—no persecution happened under Constantine, or his Christian successors. The fact was, Paganism was already dying all on its own. The reason why Julian was so unsuccessful in his attempts to revive paganism was that there simply weren’t a lot of pagans left. Paganism had already proven itself to be morally bankrupt. That didn’t mean there were brilliant pagan thinkers and politicians—there were: they had positions in the government of Constantine and his successors.

Edward Gibbon

Needless to say, such a narrative of history that Enlightenment thinkers like Gibbon put forth is a complete fiction. Real life is far more complex than such caricatures. Unfortunately, though, such simplistic thinking has continued up to the present day. In fact, it is more proper to say that the “dawn” of the so-called “Enlightenment” has ushered in a kind of darkness and ignorance of actual history. The reality is there never was a “Dark Ages,” and therefore never any kind of “Enlightenment” that brought Western civilization out of such supposed darkness.

At the same, though, (and this is equally important to note), it would be equally dishonest and wrong to claim that what has been labeled as the Dark Ages was really a golden age of enlightenment, and that the so-called Enlightenment was one of complete darkness. In reality, all ages have their light and darkness; all ages have their advances and regressions; all ages have their instances of moral progress and moral failings. Any clear thinking about history, philosophy, theology, and civilization in general is dependent on recognizing this fact.

In any case, instead of going along with the standard historical labels for Western civilization (i.e. Middle Ages, Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment), I have decided to present the various times with what I think are more historically accurate descriptions. In the present case, one simply cannot lump over 1,000 years of Western civilization under the banner of the “Middle Ages,” for they weren’t in the “middle” of anything, and the relevant people and events were not all in the West.

Anyone who knows anything about the Roman Empire knows that, given how vast it was, there were essentially two parts to it: the Eastern part of the empire and the Western part of the empire. Over the 1,000 years in question, a vast number of things happened that eventually resulted in a historical, theological, philosophical, and cultural split between the eastern half of the empire and the western half of the empire. At the same time, though, there was considerable overlap and interplay between the two cultures, and it is simply impossible to understand the development of Western civilization without considering the impact of that interplay.

hagiasophiaiconThis next number of posts will focus on what I have called the Byzantine Age—the time period between the rise of Constantine (313 AD and the Edict of Milan) and the Great Schism of 1054 AD. During this time period there was a slow but steady divorce between the East and the West, but it was still primarily shaped by a significantly Byzantine worldview.

After these posts, I will turn my attention to what I’ve called the High Catholic Age—the time period between the Great Schism (1054 AD) and the Martin Luther’s nailing of his 95 theses in 1517 AD, which marked the beginning of the so-called “Reformation” (again, a term that is slightly misleading). It was during the time period of 1054-1517 AD that the impact of the distinctly Roman Catholic Church can be analyzed.

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 12): Christian Persecution in the Roman Empire

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 12): Christian Persecution in the Roman Empire

Now we come to the final topic regarding early Christianity in the Roman Empire: persecution. Two things must be said up front: first, despite what some might think (I mean, it’s what I thought growing up), Christians were not continually persecuted for 300 years until the rise of Constantine the Great. That being said, persecution of Christians was fairly constant at some level, throughout various places of the Roman Empire. Most persecutions took place at the local level. This is not to downplay the severity of Christian persecutions, but to set the record straight: there wasn’t a continual, 300 year-long orchestrated campaign by the Roman state against Christians. The most famous persecutions took place under the reigns of Nero (54-68 AD), Domitian (81-96 AD), Trajan (98-117 AD), Marcus Aurelius (161-180 AD), Semptimius Severus (193-211 AD), Decius (249-251 AD), and Diocletian (284-305 AD).

Everyone knows that Christians were often persecuted, but the question must be asked, “Why were Christians persecuted in the first place?” Sure, from the Roman point of view, Christianity was an odd offshoot of the already odd and hostile religion of Judaism. And sure, from the Roman point of view (and the pagan rumor mill), Christians practiced incest (they called each other “brother” and “sister”), cannibalism (i.e. a misunderstanding of communion), engaged in wild, drunken orgies (what Christians called “love feasts”), and were atheists (they didn’t have idols). But such behavior would have just made the Christians out to be weird—so why the intense persecution?

Ah, Persecution…Let’s Take It Back to Jerusalem! Jesus Quotes Daniel at His Trial…
Well, it should be pointed out that the first group to persecute Christians was not the Roman Empire—it was the Jewish religious authorities in Jerusalem. Yes, Jesus himself was crucified on a Roman cross, but the very reason he was even brought before Pilate in the first place was because the Sanhedrin viewed him as a threat to their own power. They knew they didn’t have the authority to put Jesus to death, but they knew if they accused him of being a threat to Caesar, then Pilate would carry their wishes out.

Indeed, Jesus had amassed a following who hailed him as the Jewish Messiah, had come to Jerusalem, and had then proceeded to condemn, not Rome, but (shockingly) both the Temple and the priesthood! He even prophesied that it was because of the corruption among the priesthood that the Temple would be destroyed by Rome. And then, after the Sanhedrin had him arrested and interrogated by the high priest that night, when the high priest asked Jesus, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus replied by quoting Daniel 7:14: “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”

This scene from “The Passion of the Christ” depicts the trial. For the actual exchange to which I’m referring, just skip to minute 13.

What does that mean? Well, Jesus was not predicting his second coming at that point. It certainly would be quite odd, when asked that question at his trial, for Jesus to say, “Yeah! And over 2,000 years from now, I’ll be back to reign as king of the world!”

Rather, what Jesus was doing was alluding to Daniel’s vision in Daniel 7, in which a “little horn” of a beast from the sea is persecuting God’s people, only to eventually be destroyed by one like “the Son of Man,” who ascends to heaven, is given authority by God, and who then destroys the “little horn.”

Now, you and I might have to do a little digging to understand what Daniel 7 is about, but every Jew at that time already knew exactly what this vision was about. It was about the tyrannical Selucid king Antiochus Epiphanes of the 2nd century BC, and how God would eventually destroy evil rulers like him when the Messiah comes. The shock of Jesus’ words, therefore, was that not only was he claiming he was the Son of Man, God’s anointed Messiah, but that the high priest and the Sanhedrin (the Jewish priestly authority!) was actually the “little horn!”

Jesus was basically saying, “Yes I’m the Messiah, and you’re the equivalent of Antiochus Epiphanes!” For those who don’t know their Jewish history well enough to appreciate the scandal of such an accusation, imagine if Jesus’s life and ministry happened today, and if the Knesset (the Israeli legislature) arrested Jesus and put him on trial, and Jesus accused the prime minister and the entire Knesset of being the equivalent of Hitler and the Nazis. Given such an inflammatory charge, it isn’t hard to understand why the Sanhedrin wanted Jesus killed.

Early Christian Martyrs up to the Temple’s Destruction in 70 AD
Yet, the crucifixion of Jesus hadn’t ended the movement. It sprang up within days, and continued to grow. So what does a threatened authority do in such cases, other than to crush such movements even more fiercely? We all know that Paul was commissioned by the Sanhedrin to crush the Christian movement, only to become a Christian himself. There was the stoning of Stephen in 35 AD; James the son of Zebedee was killed by Herod Agrippa in 44 AD; Peter was initially arrested soon after James was killed, only to miraculously escape; Paul was arrested during his last visit to Jerusalem in 56 AD. Then, within the span of about six years, three of the most significant leaders in the early Church all were killed: James, the brother of Jesus, and the head of the Jerusalem church, was arrested, convicted, and stoned to death by the high priest Ananus and the Sanhedrin in 62 AD; Paul was beheaded by Nero in Rome somewhere between 64-67 AD; and Peter was crucified upside down in Rome around the same time.

jewish-warWith the Jewish War of 66-70 AD and the subsequent destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by Rome (just as Jesus had prophesied), the divorce between Jews and Christians became complete. After all, as Rome was approaching Jerusalem, the Christians in Jerusalem remembered Jesus words of Mark 13/Matthew 24/Luke 21, that when they saw Jerusalem surrounded by armies they were to flee the city—and they did just that. From the Jewish perspective, the Christians were traitors to Israel. From the Christians’ perspective, they were the true people of God, and the Jews had become God’s enemies. Therefore, the reason for Jewish animosity toward Christians is fairly easy to understand.

But Why Did Rome Persecute Christians?
Yet the question remains, why did Rome persecute Christians? To put the reason in simple terms: Romans viewed Christians as unpatriotic to Rome. The Christians’ value system and ethics flew in the face of Roman society (as we have already seen in previous posts). Not only that, but they were considerably “anti-social,” because they refused to have anything to do with the pagan temples. We must remember, pagan temples were not just “places of worship,” for pagans; they were essentially community centers. Everything in Roman society revolved around the pagan temple system. And so when Christians refused to participate in any activity associated with the pagan temples, they were refusing to participate in the Roman way of life, and therefore were seen as not really being good Roman citizens.

It would kind of be like if someone wouldn’t stand up for the national anthem because he was concerned with the plight of oppressed and neglected minorities. (I emphasize kind of…just an analogy to point out how easy it is to see someone as unpatriotic and unleash hatred on that person).

When it gets right down to it, though, the fundamental reason why Christians were persecuted was that they refused to worship the emperor as a god. That made the Christians out to be, not just unpatriotic, but absolutely treasonous to the Roman Empire. We must remember that in ancient Rome there was no “separation between church and state,” or more properly, there was no distinction between “religion” and “patriotism/loyalty to the state.” It simply did not matter how much Christians like Justin Martyr tried to argue that Christians were loyal to the empire, that they paid their taxes to the empire, and that they even prayed for the emperor. The fact that they refused to offer incense to the emperor and to hail him as a god, marked Christians out as entirely suspect, and potentially dangerous. Therefore, whenever a crisis affected Rome, or whenever an emperor called for patriotism and unity, that usually meant it was time for another round of persecutions for the Christians.

Where I Disagree with Francis Schaeffer
Francis Schaeffer, in his book How Should We Then Live, claimed that the real reason Christians were persecuted was that they claimed a “moral absolute” by which they could confront even the emperor, and they held to a moral foundation that was far superior and stronger than the pagan morality of their day. Although that is generally true, Schaeffer misunderstands a few vital points.

The hallmark of the early Christians was not simply that they came out, preaching “absolute moral truth.” Yes, their moral values and lived-out ethics radically flew in the face of their surrounding pagan neighbors. There is no doubt about that. But to reduce the impact of the early Church before Constantine to simply saying they preached “absolute truth” is to dangerously flirt with reducing the core of Christianity to nothing more than a “definite moralism.”

What got Christians in trouble was not simply their ethics or their claims to absolute truth. Their ethics (we can call it “the ethics of the Kingdom of God”) simply stemmed from a radically different worldview that itself was born out of the historical realities of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Simply put, what got Christians persecuted was not that they said things like child prostitution, slavery, or abortion was wrong (although they certainly did say those things were wrong). What got Christians in trouble was that they claimed allegiance to another kingdom, to another king, and they claimed that kingdom and king was currently reigning. They claimed it was a kingdom that was not of this world.

In essence, Christians were saying that the kingdom of Caesar wasn’t even in the same league as the kingdom of Christ. From the Christian perspective, such a statement wasn’t a threat to Caesar at all, any more than saying, “Michael Jordan is a better basketball player than a high school sophomore JV player” is a “threat” to that sophomore. But from the Roman perspective, especially that of an all-powerful emperor who wouldn’t appreciate being equated with a high school sophomore on the JV, such a statement was taken as a threat.

Persecutions and Political Power
Those in positions of political power, especially megalomaniacs, will often do anything they can to crush any perceived threats (real or imaginary) to their power. Therefore, the Christians had to be dealt with as traitors and threats to the empire. The fact that they didn’t cower at the feet of Caesar when threatened, the fact that so many of them gave not so much of a shrug to threats of torture, the fact that they had the boldness (or audacity, if you’re Caesar) to not openly defy the emperor by not hailing him as a god, but to act as if they were, in fact, his equal—well, such people had to be positively terrifying to the Roman world, much less Caesar.

Martyrdom of Polycarp

That is perhaps the reason why the persecutions of Christians were so particularly ghastly and inhumane: they were doused with tar and set on fire to be used a human torches in Nero’s gardens; they were thrown to beasts and ripped apart in the Coliseum as a form of entertainment; they were beheaded, crucified—the creatively horrid ways the Romans thought up torture could go on.

Yet the early Christian martyrs would not deny Christ, even in the face of such inhumane torture. And why? Because they were convinced that the resurrection of Jesus opened up a whole new understanding of God, human beings, and the world itself, and they proceeded to live out the implications of the resurrection. They lived, if you will, resurrected lives within a pagan world where death, disease, inequality, and despair reigned. And the rulers and authorities of that world, who trafficked and benefited from those things couldn’t stand to have their power threatened by people who were truly better than them.

A Look Ahead: The Byzantine Age (313-1054 AD)
With this post, I mark the end of what would have been my chapter on the Greco-Roman Age. In the next few posts, I will cover what I call The Byzantine Age (roughly 313-1054 AD). I do not use the term “Middle Ages” or “Medieval Times,” because these titles were essentially made up by later Enlightenment thinkers who tried to portray this period as a time of intellectual darkness in an attempt to slander the Church. Therefore, I have chosen to call the period of 313-1054 AD (from the rise of Constantine to the Great Schism) as The Byzantine Age. For it was during this time that Christianity thrived under the blessing of the Christian Byzantine rulers.

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