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Faith column: ‘Jesus Wars’ shows church’s bloody battle over nature of Christ

April 5, 2010

Still working my way through Philip Jenkins’ latest book “Jesus Wars.” Jenkins is something of a rock star in my world. His work on Christian history and contemporary Christianity always challenges and enlightens me. That holds true for “Jesus Wars,” which details the bloody and bitter battles over the nature of Jesus (was he part human/part divine? solely divine? something else?). If Christians hadn’t been killing each other over this issue in the 5th century, we might have a very different religious landscape today, Jenkins argues. Possibly one with no Islam. And no pope. Can you imagine?

We ran this Q&A in the Statesman over the Easter weekend. But the actual text I’m posting below is the full, unedited version. It’s worth reading every word.

It may be hard for Christians today to imagine, but a bitter and violent theological debate turned 5th century Christendom into a bloody battlefield on which tens of thousands died. At issue was the nature of Jesus. Church leaders made different claims, including the Monophysite argument that Jesus was of only one nature (divine) and the Nestorian view that he was both divine and human, but the two natures were not fully merged. The belief that prevailed held that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. But the church paid a high price for that orthodoxy as historian Philip Jenkins details in his new book “Jesus Wars.” Jenkins is a professor of history and religious studies at Penn State University and last year became Distinguished Senior Fellow at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion and co-director of the institute’s Initiative on HIstorical Studies of Religion. He responded to questions from faith columnist Eileen Flynn.


Jesus Wars raises some fascinating historical what-ifs. If Christendom had not been rent asunder by this debate over the nature of Christ, a dramatically different religious landscape might have emerged. We might not have a papacy or even the Muslim religion. Tell us a little about what might have happened if church leaders were on the same page.

It’s hard in retrospect thinking what the geography of the Christian world was at that time, but it was radically different from anything we think of in later years. Christian numbers were still heavily concentrated in the Middle East, in Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Iraq, which is where all the intellectual and political action was. Rome was important in some ways, but it was consigned to the distant fringes of the world. Some Popes didn’t even speak Greek, which was as much the basic language of Christianity as it had been back in St Paul’s time. They were completely at sea trying to understand the great debates of the time.

What happened during the fifth and sixth centuries was that the Roman Empire – the greatest Christian state – adopted a theology that the Roman Popes loved, and which is still the way virtually all believers around the world understand Christ. This was the decision of the great Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, which is today upheld by Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants alike.  Unfortunately, this view was dangerous nonsense to many Christians of the ancient East, who now found themselves persecuted as heretics, under names like Monophysites and Nestorians. To themselves, of course, they were the “orthodox”, and they saw the Pope and his Catholics who were the real heretics.

The persecutions and the civil wars raged for two hundred years, until the Eastern believers were so desperate that many actively welcomed the Muslim invaders as liberators from Roman tyranny. Only gradually did Eastern Christian leaders realize the growing threat they faced from swelling Muslim numbers, which would transform the Christian Middle East into an overwhelmingly Islamic society.

So suppose things had gone differently? If the Christian world had had a popular referendum, very likely the so-called heretics – the Monophysites and Nestorians –  would have been the majority, and it would have been the Roman Popes and Orthodox Patriarchs who would have been excluded or even persecuted.

To adapt what I say in the book, we might even say that the later history of Christianity depended not just on any one person, but on one horse, the one that stumbled in 450 AD, causing the death of the pro-Monophysite emperor Theodosius II. Only 48 at the time of his death, he could easily have reigned for another twenty years. If Theodosius had not died, there would have been no Council of Chalcedon, and in that case, the Western, European, Catholic part of the empire might have been the one to slide into secession over the following century. That was the direction in which events so often seemed to be moving.

We can imagine a counterfactual universe in which the schism between Rome and the east occurred in the fifth century, not the eleventh, and papal Rome never recovered from subjection to successive waves of barbarian occupiers. By 450, much of the old Western Empire was under the political control of barbarian warlords who were overwhelmingly Arian Christians, rather than Catholics. Perhaps Catholics might have survived in the face of Arian persecution and cultural pressure, perhaps not. In the east, meanwhile, a Monophysite Roman Empire would have held on to its rock-solid foundations in a faithfully united eastern realm that stretched from Egypt to the Caucasus, from Syria to the Balkans. This solid Christendom would have struggled mightily against Muslim newcomers, and conceivably, they would have held the frontiers. Islam would have died away, or remained popular only among some fringe tribes on the empire’s far borders.

In this alternate world, later Christian scholars would know the fundamental languages of the faith – Greek, Coptic and Syriac – and they would have free access to the vast treasures surviving in each of those tongues. Latin works, however, would be available only to a handful of daring researchers willing to explore that marginal language, with its puzzling alphabet. Only those bold Latinists would recall such marginal figures of Christian antiquity as Saints Augustine and Patrick.

No Latin, no Papacy, and no Islam.

If only because of the other paths that could so easily have been taken, these debates give the mid-fifth century an excellent claim to be counted as the most formative period in the whole history of Christianity.

Easter weekend strikes me as a great opportunity for Christians to discuss the themes of your book. I wonder how much time today’s Christians think about the nature of Jesus. Do most accept the teaching that he is fully human and fully divine, or do you think Christians continue to struggle with this concept?

I suspect that most Christians would agree with the statement that Christ is both God and Man, but I wonder how few could define it precisely enough to satisfy the church authorities back in early times! By those rigorous standards, virtually all modern non-specialists (including many clergy) would soon lapse into grave heresy. I’ve certainly hard modern preachers and priests give sermons that nobody raised an eyebrow over today, but which would have got them thrown out of town or burnt back in 600AD!

The trouble is that the Bible itself opens itself to several different interpretations. In early times at least, leading thinkers and scholars varied in the stress they placed on Jesus’s humanity or his divinity, and without exercising too much ingenuity or text-twisting, they found Biblical passages that supported all these opinions.    Some early Christians thought that Christ was so overwhelmed by Godhood that his human nature was eclipsed. In that sense, we should think of Christ as a manifestation of God walking the earth, clothed in human form as a convenient disguise. The Word took flesh as I might put on an overcoat. In that case, are we to believe that Christ’s sufferings, all the tears and blood, were a kind of play-acting or illusion?  Others saw Jesus as a great man overwhelmed by God-consciousness. Somehow, the Spirit of God had descended on him, with his baptism in the Jordan as the likely moment of transformation – but the two Natures always remained separate. Christ, from that perspective, remained chiefly human. Some thought the Two Natures were merged, indissolubly and eternally; others thought the connection was only partial or temporary. So was Jesus a Man-Bearing God, or a God-Bearing man?

And the question really does have consequences. How you answer it shapes your fundamental views of the world. Someone who thinks of Christ as wholly divine is hard pressed to see any goodness in the material world, and tends to set a wholly good spiritual world against a totally depraved material creation. In contrast, those who believe in a human Christ are also more likely to accept the potential goodness of the material world. Although (they hold) that world may now be plunged into sin, then at least it can be redeemed. Belief in the incarnation leads to a sacramental vision.

The quality of Christ’s humanity also affected the ethical lessons that believers took from his life and suffering. For those who believed that Christ was virtually all divine,  he could not in any real sense face temptation: he could not wrestle with moral dilemmas, or overcome the seductions of evil. Of course, God can withstand temptation and resist sin: but what good is that to us? If these thinkers were right, we can respond only by worshipping the divine super-hero who came to rescue us from the dark forces holding the world in bondage. But if you believe in a human Christ, then ordinary believers can and must emulate Jesus. You really can live according to the rule “What would Jesus do?”

What should we learn from the early church’s bloody theological rift?

These Jesus Wars basically destroyed a Christian world, yet the different sides had so very much in common. For modern historians, it’s often hard to look at a particular church or leader and decide where they fell on the spectrum of belief – yet at the time, these divisions were critically important, literally matters of life and death.

The basic lesson I would draw is that people should focus on what they have in common rather than tear themselves apart in a way that benefits common enemies. When I say that, I’m certainly not describing Muslims or other religions as a deadly outside enemy, but rather thinking of outside secular forces that try and profit from church factions and divisions.

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