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The Origins of Christianity

by Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna

Question:

I am sorry to bother you with this, but our son came home from college with this challenge to our Orthodox view of the Church: His professor told him that there were "many Christianities" at the time of the early church and that the first ecumenical council in Nicea invented Christianity by choosing what books of the Bible agreed with the Emperor and the bishops and rejected what didn't. He said that Constantine was a pagan and that the bishops were imperial officials who followed his whim and who were probably pagans and not believers in Christ. Can you comment a little on this, in a very simple way, for our son?

Reply:

Most of my education in Church history was at the University of California, where I had the privilege of studying, both as an undergraduate and graduate student, with Jeffrey Burton Russell, the renowned Church historian and scholar. While I may not do credit, as a scholar, to his inimitable teaching skills, he formed in me a critical sense about Church history that has long served me. Let me draw on that sense to say what I think that Professor Russell would have to say to your son (with due apologies, if I am off the mark):

  1. The term "many Christianities" is essentially meaningless from an historical standpoint. It is an historiographical construct with little support.
  2. The Synod of Nicea did not determine the canon of Scripture.
  3. That the historical record is not entirely clear as to the time of the Emperor Constantine's conversion. (Eusebius claims that he was baptized just before his death, though it was not unusual for confessing Christians to put off Baptism, as did St. John Chrysostomos, for example).
  4. The Bishops at the first Oecumenical Synod met to counter a specific Christological heresy (Arianism), and not to invent Christianity. To claim that they were pagans is inane.

It is not offhandedly that I have referred to a scholar of Russell's stature. I wanted to contrast basic historical fact with this "New Age" view of early Christianity that your son's professor put forth. Such a view reflects at the professorial level the same appalling mediocrity in scholarship that we hear about in contemporary education at the student level.*

To offer a traditionalist commentary on what your son was told, the early Church had an established notion of Christianity that was well enough defined, and so consistently shared, that already in the Apostolic Age and in the second century there existed a notion of the Patristic consensus and of orthodox (correct) belief and theology. The existence of beliefs and scripture at odds with the common experience of the majority of Christians was also a matter of concern in Apostolic times and in the very earliest centuries of Christianity. Heresy and deviation from the consensus of that which Christ taught and the Apostles and Fathers preached and preserved were well known things and were defined as heresies and deviations. Indeed, one can argue that such a sensitivity to orthodoxy and cacodoxy can be very clearly found, and in a reasonably developed form, as early as the Epistles of St. Paul

By the time of the First Oecumenical Synod, the self-identity of the Church had been made manifest in practice and writing; orthodoxy of doctrine was clearly the outgrowth of a commonality of Christianity experience; and heresy was obviously easily enough identified for someone like Arios (Arius), who had deviated from the Christian consensus, to be called to repentance before the body of the Church. It would be absurd, in view of the abundance of extant historical evidence and Patristic writings, to argue that "many Christianities" existed at the time of Nicea (325) and that the First Oecumenical Synod put together some contrived Christianity of its own making. This view is artificial and is unworthy of a real scholar, even if, today, such positions are treated seriously.

The Orthodox Church, in its claims to catholicity, sees herself as embodying the Christianity which emerged from the common experience and "genike syneidesis" ("general consciousness") of the Church established by Christ. The Church understands itself to be the continuator of the Church delivered by Christ, the Word, in a complete form and in its fullness. As St. Athanasios the Great describes the Church, it was "from the very beginning" what "the Logos [or Christ] gave, the Apostles preached, and the Fathers preserved." It is on this monolithic truth, the Saint tells us, that "the Church is established."

Church history, then, is not for us something that brought together dispersed elements and defined itself by a process of testing and selection from such elements. It is the living presence of Christ in the Church which He was and which He revealed (in embryonic institutional form, perhaps, but empowered to blossom in a fully natural, organic manner). Church history, in short, is the action of the Holy Spirit in time: Holy Tradition. And the content of history is always the preservation of what was delivered by Christ in perfect form. This is why the Oecumenical Synods were not gatherings that defined Christianity, but were always, as Father Florovsky has pointed out, convened to defend an extant Faith—just as the First Oecumenical Synod gathered, not to define the Church, but to defend the existent revelation of Christ against the sophistry and deviant teachings of Arios' corrupted understanding of Christ.

In order to understand the Orthodox Faith, one has no need of reading secular histories of the Faith; no need of scholastic speculation about matters theological; and no need to compile, in some artificial fashion, a set of doctrines about everything under the sun as it is revealed by Scripture, or by the Fathers, or by some "canonical" standard. Rather, we are called to that "standard of Faith" (kanon tes pisteos) which brings together history, ecclesiology, Christology, soteriology, anthropology, confession, canonical order, and every aspect of the Church in a single experience with Christ, in Whom all Truth is contained; we are called to an ineffable encounter with the transcendent Mystery of God.

This unifying encounter with God, which culminates in our theosis or divinization — our union by Grace with the Energies of God — brings us into intimate communion with the Patristic phronema (or mind), which is the mind of Christ and which is expressed, not in the opinions and perceptions of the Fathers of the Church as such, but in all that which they hold in common by revelation and through the mystical experience of union with Christ. The consensus of the Fathers, their oneness in transformation by Christ, is an expression of the unity of Church history and all Christian experience.

This golden thread of common experience holds together the fabric of Christianity; indeed, the entire mosaic of Christianity, in which every piece helps to form an image of Christian reality in history and beyond time and space, is perfectly revealed in the mystical consensus of the Fathers. In their common experience in Christ, in Whom they dwelt, they found the Truth, which they defended against all deviations from what was handed down to them (paradosis) and what the Apostles spread from the immense richness of their personal experience with the Theanthropos (the God-Man). The Fathers preserved, not a dead artifact, but the core of their spiritual experience of God by communing with the Energies of the Unknowable Essence of God. They preserved what Christian history contains.

Such is an Orthodox understanding of Church history. Aside from the incorrect historical data proffered by your son's professor, such an expansive grasp of Christianity and the experience which is its provenance and the force of its historical expression makes the secular historiography that your son's professor embraces seem rather crude and artless; and it is, I would argue, just that. His professor's notion of Christianity is much like a description of a wonderful food by someone who has never tasted it and has only seen it in artistic representations.

* One popular work that champions your son's professor's views is Raskin's The Evolution of Christs and Christianities (Xlibris: 2006). Raskin teaches philosophy and is a film maker. He brings to his commentaries on Christ and Christianity a penchant for popular writing; however, his historical skills are wanting and his theological background is nil. However, books such as his, lacking any real scholarly worth, enjoy a large following, if simply because scholarship about Christianity today is, as I have noted, so poor and often so naively secular in tone or outlook.

Widely circulated by email. Posted on 8/9/2008.