Sitting Lightly on Labels

I have just finished reading Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity:  The First Three Thousand Years.  It is a thoroughly enjoyable read, comprehensive, and engagingly written.  It is also a great doorstopper of a book, so large a hardbound tome that unless one has hands like those of the Incredible Hulk one finds it hard to hold the book in one hand while drinking coffee with the other.  The title (“the first three thousand years”) refers to the fact that the author begins his tale in 1000 B.C. to take account of Greek culture and Hebrew history.  Such a comprehensive sweep takes many pages:  1016 to be exact, not counting notes, bibliography, and index.

It was not written by one of “us”:  the author discloses in the Introduction that although he was happily raised in a Christian household containing three generations of Anglican clergy, he does not now   consider himself a Christian.  While retaining an affection for the faith of his youth, he freely admits this, and describes himself as “a candid friend of Christianity”.  The friendship seems genuine; I did not feel while reading his work that I needed to brace myself for unfair distortions of our history coming from the enemy camp.  I found his candour refreshing, for it enabled him to describe frankly some of the failings of the Church throughout its long two thousand year history.

I did want to quibble, of course.  His reference to Sts. Sergius and Bacchus probably being gay and citing Boswell’s notorious work of faux scholarship on same-sex unions in pre-modern Europe made me wince.  He also considers the patriarchal stories a product of the exile, footnoting Van Seters as one of his authorities, despite the radicality of the latter, and I wanted to ask him if he had read Kenneth Kitchen’s spirited riposte and effective refutation of Van Seter’s theories.  I also thought MacCulloch’s wholesale rejection of the historicity of the Nativity stories unduly sceptical.  Despite his approving citation of his old doctoral supervisor’s aphorism “if historians are not sceptical, they are nothing”, such scepticism does have its limits.  I here recalled C.S. Lewis’ word to young seminarians:  “I do not wish to reduce the sceptical element in your minds.  I am only suggesting that it need not be reserved exclusively for the New Testament and the Creeds.  Try doubting something else.”  Like the work of Boswell and Van Seters.

But these things are mere quibbles, and hardly detract from the great worth of the book and MacCulloch’s immense accomplishment.  Here I would like to focus upon something that emerged from the total text like a consistent theme—the unfortunate results of the Church’s pairing with the Roman Empire and the unedifying political power struggles that resulted from it.

MacCulloch’s consistent focus upon the Church’s unhappy divisions and the mutual hostility of the combatants gives the overall impression that the combat was largely due to personal failings and lack of charity of the part of all those involved.  MacCulloch does not snipe at those involved (he is much too kind and generous an author for that), but one is left with the feeling that those involved were quarreling over trifles and their quarrels were everywhere contrasted with the values of their Founder.  Their combat, he wants to make clear, was inconsistent with their confession of faith, and it would have been better for everyone if they had just chilled out.  Live and let live.

This view of Christians ancient and modern as unduly judgmental and quarrelsome is a popular one, and widely held.  One thinks of the famous smirk that the advocates of Nicea insisted that Christ was homoousios with the Father and not homoiousios, so that those allegedly grown men were fighting over the presence of an iota (the Greek letter “i”).  How dumb and picayune can you get?  The question of the significance of that single letter is of course never raised.

It is true, and MacCulloch abundantly documents, that a lot of the confessional infighting had its source in political ambition and nationalistic feeling.  But not all of it.  MacCulloch acknowledges some sincerity of belief on the part of the combatants, but I could not detect a sustained effort to examine that sincerity more closely.  Perhaps it is asking too much of an already hefty book to delve into such issues.  But not delving into them leaves the reader with a skewed view of how things looked to the ancient combatants themselves.

It might help if we transpose such issues into a modern key.  Modern secular people do not care for the niceties of Christological precision (e.g. “Is Christ God or merely like God?”) for the very good reason that they have no interest in Christology, believing as they do that Jesus is not God at all, but only a very nice man.  For them the whole issue is irrelevant.  But modern secular people do care about issues like racism, and so are quite keen to achieve precision about something that is (justifiably) important to them.

This being so, if someone said, for example, that although it was wrong to harm someone or deny them a job because they were of a different race, it was nonetheless acceptable to oppose inter-racial marriage, this nicety would attract immediate attention.  This detail would be considered important and those opposing inter-racial marriage would be considered racist, however much they might deny the charge.  Agreeing to disagree about this, refusing to quarrel, and choosing to live and let live would not be considered ethical options.  The one holding the wrong view on racism must be harried from the room and denied their place among civilized people, because the racist error was important and affects peoples’ lives.  Fair enough.

That is, of course, exactly how the ancient Christians felt about Christology.  For them salvation was dependent upon their worshipping Jesus of Nazareth, giving to Him the same love, reverence, and allegiance that would be given to Almighty God.  A mistake in Christology would affect that, for saying that Jesus was homoiousios (merely “like God”) meant that He was essentially no more than a celebrity, and that no one should offer Him the same worship as they would God Almighty.  It was the same with other Christological errors:  was Jesus truly one of us, or merely God in disguise?  Was Jesus a man within whom God dwelt, with divinity and humanity existing like oil and water, or was He truly God in human flesh?  From the days of John’s Gospel at least, the Church worshipped Jesus as if this very human Jew were also Almighty God come down to us—like Athanasius and Cyril insisted.  The Christological mistake was important because it affected peoples’ lives.

All that said, it was also worth asking the question whether or not the abiding Christian groups really denied this foundational Johannine truth.  In a word, were the later Nestorians really Christologically Nestorian, or did they cling to the name of their founder out of unthinking and nationalistic habit?  In calling themselves “Nestorian” did the rank and file really embrace Nestorius’ fatally defective Christology, or did they just object to the Roman Empire’s formulations because they were given such a hard time there?  The same goes for the Monophysite Copts and Armenians.  Did they really deny that Christ was truly and fully human or were they just expressing the Johannine truth with different formula and remembering bitterly how the Emperor pushed them around after Chalcedon?

This means, I suggest, that while we should insist on such foundational truths as John proclaimed in his Gospel and which were enshrined in early baptismal creeds (intent, as the creeds were, upon keeping whacky Gnostics out), we should sit more lightly on labels.  Rather than just looking at labels (e.g. “Monophysite”, “Nestorian”, or even “Anglican”) we should explore more closely what it is that the people to whom we have affixed these labels actually believe.  Perhaps we can work with them more closely.  Perhaps not.  That all depends upon what they tell us about themselves and their faith.  And that involves a lot of patient and close listening.

Listening is hard work, I admit.  But MacColloch’s massive book with its extensive documentation of past division means that we should give it a try.  MacColloch is generous and kind to us, even though he has left us.  Not all who have left us will be so kind.  We need all the allies we can get.





  1. Thanks for this, Father. MacCulloch is as generous in his person as he is in his writing. He responded to me personally when I reached out to him on Facebook with a question. The documentary series based on the book is quite excellent for what it is.

  2. Thank you for this post, Father. I picked up MacCulloch’s book when I first converted, years ago, into the Orthodox Church. I will admit I did not get very far. Perhaps a chapter or two. Is it worth the time in picking it up again in order to getting a more full and deeper understanding of the broad history of Christianity? I’m guessing the answer is “yes”, but do I have the courage to dive into this huge project again?

    1. It’s worth the read. Also excellent is McGuckin’s history of the Church (another doorstopper), covering the first thousand years. This one gives the reader snippets of the Fathers’ works.

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