Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What
Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years - by Philip Jenkins
by Barbara Buzzard
“Jesus spoke of love; his church spoke in riddles.”
The best part of this book is its subtitle — How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years. If Christians were to truly study, consider and evaluate this — and then be radical enough to act upon their findings — the religious world would look very different.
As Robert Shaw, the well-known choral conductor, son of a Baptist preacher, once explained, he didn’t attend church because he was expected to check his brain at the door. Do the opposite of that: come with me now on a mini tour of church history.
Orthodoxy states that Jesus was both God and man. Phillip Jenkins indicates: “But when we have said that, we have raised more questions than we have answered, as the basic belief in Jesus Christ demands combining two utterly different categories of being. Such a transgression of boundaries puzzles and shocks believers of other faiths, especially strict monotheists such as Muslims and Jews. But even those Christians who accept the basic concept probably could not explain it with anything like the precision demanded by early church councils.” He adds that they would soon lapse into grave heresy! (merely by attempting to explain it!)
“What ultimately became accepted as Christian orthodoxy was hammered out in a process that was painfully slow, gradual, and often bloody. This conflict was marked by repeated struggles, coups, and open warfare spread over centuries. It is easy to imagine another outcome in which the so-called Orthodox would have been scorned as heretics, with incalculable consequences for mainstream political history, not to mention all later Christian thought and devotion.” He is saying that this thing “turned on a dime.” The decision as to who were the heretics might as well have been made by saying “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe” or by tossing a coin to see which side was right.There was a time when the two-nature or God/man description of Jesus was a heresy. Doctrinal shifts went back and forth like a seesaw. The fact that it is now orthodoxy should lead to an examination of how it came to be that way, and Jenkins shows that all was not well. In fact the course of history depended not on just one man, but upon one horse! The horse of emperor Theodosius II stumbled, killing him. Had he lived he could easily have reigned another twenty years and Jenkins feels that the history of the world might have been quite different.
Jenkins describes well the dramas that occurred with the Jesus wars. Bishops were on again, off again, often forced to sign documents against their consciences. There was even a syndrome known as Vicar of Bray syndrome — the urge to keep one’s job at whatever cost. Each settlement was fragile, with defections occurring whenever they dared and anathemas being uttered by the victors. This is how one of the battles was won: “Chalcedonian ideas triumphed not because of the force of their logic, but because the world that opposed them perished.” “Looking at history, the process of establishing orthodoxy involved a huge amount of what we might call political accident — on the outcome of dynastic succession, on victory or defeat in battle, on the theological tastes of key royal figures. Throughout, we are always tempted to say: if only this event had worked out differently, or this, or this. It is a story of ifs, and matters might very easily have gone another way.” And yet the outcome — the Trinity and the supposed two natures of Jesus — form the bedrock of orthodox Christian belief.
Jenkins asks if chance is a valid concept and says no — not from a Christian perspective. He then leaves aside the theological difficulties and as a historian records the dual nature picture of Jesus that we were just left with when the strong arm of religion said no more squabbling. This is the truth and if you don’t believe it, you are a heretic.
And yet he says how good it is to consider these things. He quotes Dorothy Sayers as saying, “If Christ was God...then he knew everything that was going to happen, so that his sufferings were really no more than a kind of playacting. And if he was God, he couldn’t actually be tempted in any real sense, could he? What kind of example can an ordinary Christian find in stories like that?”
We all know that the winners write history but as Jenkins sees it, it is even worse than that — far worse. He argues that “historians write retroactively from the point of view of those who would win at some later point, even if that victory was nowhere in sight at the time they are describing.”
This is anything but a pretty story. It is a story of profane wrangling, violent faith, gangster-like synods, countless reversals and then re-instatements of previous councils, murder and mayhem. It is the filthy, twisted, tortured history that is the background of what is known as orthodox Christian faith.