1% Christian History

My old college roommate and I started a tradition last year. Each Christmas, we buy each other a book that we think would be beneficial reading. I didn’t know what to expect from my greasy friend but waited patiently for my gift to arrive. One day, I walked up to my porch and saw a package that looked like a wrapped encyclopedia. I wasn’t too far off; my dirtbag roommate bought me a 1000 page book on the history of Christianity – Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch. This book loomed over me all year and I kept putting off what seemed like a Sisyphean task. By the end, it took me about 50 hours spread over a month.

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Christian history is difficult because it isn’t like normal history – it is a weird dance of facts, figures, and eternity. Having eternity involved complicates everything because you either have to take the Thomas Jefferson route and get rid of all supernatural events or take the Jack Van Impe route and prepare for the apocalypse. These two extremes frame the gamut of Christian beliefs and preface why Christian history is one continuous story of division. From the moment Jesus died on the cross, his disciples went out and preached the Gospel – within a generation, groups were already disagreeing on the intricacies of theology. The Christian church as we know it today is like a box of peanut-brittle that has been shaken by a two-year-old. Originally there was one solid chunk but now there are thousands of variant morsels. This post will only focus on one tiny but very important nugget of Christian history – as the title surmises, this book could fill 99 more blogs.

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The 1% we will cover is one of the most important moments in the Christian church – the Chalcedonian Schism. The Council of Chalcedon met from October 8th to November 9th in the year 451 AD. This Council was called by the Roman Emperor Marcian as an ecumenical meeting for all the important churches at the time – the Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Oriental Orthodox. At this point in history, the Christian church needed to clarify theological doctrine and adjust the power roles of western and eastern leaders. The main reason for this meeting was to clarify the true nature of Jesus.

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How could Jesus be both God and man? Before the meeting, there were groups who believed Jesus appeared on earth as a man disguised as God (Docetism) while other groups believed Jesus was, in reality, a normal man chosen by God (Adoptionism). These beliefs led to Nestorianism (which viewed Christ as having some mixture of divine and human elements) and Eutychianism (which viewed Christ’s divinity as completely consuming his humanity like a drop of vinegar in the ocean).

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The Council of Chalcedon sided with a watered down Nestorian view which became known as Dyophysitism – which states that Christ is one person in two natures – “distinctively” man and God in one. This led to the creation of Miaphysitism which held the belief that Christ is one nature and that nature has “inseparable” components of man and God. Confused yet? Again, Dyophysitism believes that Christ is one person with two separate natures while Miaphysitism believes that Christ is one nature which is both divine and human.

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This Dyophysitism decision at the council was agreed upon by the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. However, the Oriental Church broke off from this definition and became known as Non-Chalcedonian. The Oriental Church includes the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Syriac Orthodox Church, Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, and the Armenian Apostolic Church. This schism had drastic effects on the eastern church as a whole by shifting power to the west and decreasing overall cooperation. This separation was one variable that allowed the new religion of Islam to take over eastern strongholds of Christianity; the west would not realize their mistakes until the first crusades 600 years later.

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Our current world is shaped by the decisions at this council: The politics of countries, the religious makeup in the Middle East, and the West’s ignorance of the Oriental Church. So what can we learn from the Council of Chalcedon? One huge lesson is that Christianity can come in many different flavors, shapes, and sizes. Christians shouldn’t be divided into little pieces of peanut brittle. Christians should work together under one absolute truth – Jesus is the son of God who died for our sins so we can have eternal life and spread His message of grace; in a world still divided, we need to focus on that point more than ever. Don’t get hung up on the details and throw your hands in the air thinking religion is stupid. If you focus on loving others, you will obtain the other 99%. 

 

5 thoughts on “1% Christian History

  1. I’ve skimmed through MacCulloch’s volume, intrigued by his attempt to put it all into one book, but I wasn’t convinced that it would be worth reading the whole volume. You said at the beginning that Christianity is one constant history of division, but you could flip that around: Find the constant unchanging realities that exist throughout the entire history of Christianity, and you have indeed found a history of unity and continuity. Take the Council of Chalcedon, for example: There you have a deeper understanding of who Christ is and the reality that human nature is not destroyed when it is transformed by God. This strand is developed further at Council of Rome (649) and Third Council of Constantinople (680) where this is understood on the level of will: Christ has a human and a divine will, and so it is true that conformity to God’s will does not destroy the human will, but elevates it.

    (“Miaphysite” is a recent coinage, becoming more common than the older “Monophysite”. The word “myaphysite” reflects the usage of St. Cyril of Alexandria who does indeed speak of “mia physis”/”one nature”, and yet clarifies this to mean something very different than Eutyches, and much closer to the teaching of Chalcedon. This still took centuries to work out… A similar dynamic happened with the Iraqi Christians after the Council of Ephesus in 431. But I was making a different point, which was…)

    The history of Christianity is far more interesting when one sees it a continuous and organic development! Right now I’m digging back into the formation of the laws of the Church, starting with Code of 1983 (currently in force), to the Code of 1917 (the first time Church law was comprehensively codified), through Trent to the Decretals of Gregory IX in 1234 (basically in effect for over 600 years), and past that to the various collections of Fathers, Councils, Popes, and Scriptural norms from the first millenium, and it’s beautiful to see how enduring the institution of the Church are. I wish I knew of some one Church history I could recommend, but it is all so scattered, especially in the many original texts!

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  2. Also worth noting: You don’t have to choose between Jefferson and some televangelist. The dichotomy between faith and reason as opposites is a terrible misunderstanding of the one and the other leads one to either mistrustful calculation or mindless enthusiasm. Perhaps you meant for the irony to indicate that the reality is otherwise, but the error is so common that I wanted to say something! Faith elevates reason (up to realities beyond its natural grasp), and reason is what makes faith possible.

    And as for the peanut brittle analogy: To carry it further, there would still be a very large (and Catholic) chunk of peanut brittle which would be equal in size to all the small pieces added up. That’s the piece I’d go for…

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    • I had an inkling that you were going to like this post 🙂 I totally agree with you that faith and reason work together synergistically. Reason without faith is pointless in my opinion. Your point of continuity is spot on. My biggest take away from the book was that there are different strokes for different folks within Christianity. It is great that there are theologians who decide doctrine but it is sad when doctrine causes severe schisms (sometimes even persecution as I’m sure you know). I think there are great points from all the different Christian faiths. I think Christendom is doing a much better job now with working together and communicating. Do you have any suggestions for further reading?

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