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Book Review: A History of Christianity

G8th February 2017

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Tbook reviews, religion

Christianity is the biggest religion in the world with 2.2 billion adherents, but it wasn’t always so. Here’s a look at Diarmaid MacCulloch’s epic history of one of the world’s great religions.

The history of the Christian faith is as astonishing as any that you’d ever be likely to read and there’s no-one better to tell it than Oxford University historian Diarmaid MacCulloch who has dedicated his life to researching church history. Professor MacCulloch has documented the epic story of Christianity in a book entitled A History of Christianity: The first three thousand years (Penguin Books, 2010) which I have just finished reading.

The cover of A History of Christianity by Diarmaid MacCulloch.

I must emphasise upfront that A History of Christianity is a book about history and not theology. It is a massive piece of work with 1016 pages of text but it is thorough and dispassionate.

Many readers would expect a A History of Christianity to begin at “the beginning” – Christ’s birth – but in fact it starts thousands of years earlier in the ancient worlds of Israel and Greece. The logic for this decision is sound: The ancient Greeks had a profound influence over European thinking via their various philosophers and the Hebrew-speaking Jews were the very people who would initially be impacted by Jesus’ life. It was into the ancient world of the Greek-influenced Roman Empire that Jesus would emerge as a Jew in an occupied Judea.

Much of this basic Christian story would be known to many, but A History of Christianity also delves into the other social, political and historical circumstances which surrounded Jesus and influenced the development of Christianity as it slowly evolved from a persecuted Jewish sect to official religion of the Roman Empire. MacCulloch informs his readers about who actually wrote the gospels, why Paul of Tarsus and his epistles were so influential, how was it that Christianity managed to grow despite widespread persecution and what early church worship looked like.

MacCulluch answers all of these questions in immense detail and in a manner that is easy to comprehend. The development of the Christian faith may itself appear somewhat unlikely, even miraculous given the social circumstances of the early centuries after Christ’s time but MacCulloch paints a detailed picture of Roman and Middle-Eastern civilisation at that time and the factors that influenced the spread of Jesus’ teachings. Many readers may have a basic understanding of how the persecuted church effectively became an agent of the Roman state (it was declared so in AD 380) but none of this makes any real sense without the rest of MacCulloch’s narrative.

What may surprise readers is just how quickly Christianity initially spread in directions away from Europe, in effect as a result of the Siege of Jerusalem in AD 70 which created a Christian and Jewish diaspora. The early church in the Middle-East (particularly in Syria) has a profound impact on later religious practice and ultimately introduced monasticism and asceticism to Christian practice.

MacCulloch tells us about the early yet important disputes that emerged in the first centuries. As more and more people converted to Christianity, certain questions arose. The most perplexing related to the nature of Christ himself, who was both human and divine. People wondered whether His divinity and humanity is mixed, or separate?

An ecumenical council of bishops was established by Roman Emperor Constantine to sort this critical matter out, or so he hoped. At that time, Greek was the language of intellectuals and so it was agreed that Christ was homoousios (ὁμοούσιος, “of one substance”) with God.

It’s hard to appreciate just how much of the debate centred around the interpretation of this one Greek word and further ecumenical councils were convened to reaffirm this position and drive out the ‘heretics’ who differed in opinion. As MacCulloch tells us, this process took centuries and was further inflamed in the sixth century when the Western Latin church amended text in the Nicene Creed to accommodate the Holy Spirit (“who proceeded from the Father and the Son”). What became known as the filioque controversy finally split the Western Latin and Eastern Orthodox churches in 1054. They have never been reunited despite various attempts at reunion.

As the Church successfully converted numerous European emperors and kings (and therefore communities) throughout the early centuries, its power grew. A History of Christianity documents these struggles as the church fought off barbarians and heretics and slowly consolidated its power. Eventually through precedent it was understood that the Pope had higher standing than a king or emperor. Well, that was the theory anyway. MacCulloch’s book provides numerous accounts of kings and emperors taking control of the church in their dominions or otherwise ignoring the will of the pope when it suited them. Politics was never far away.

One of the greatest surprises in A History of Christianity is just how quickly the church turned from being persecuted to being the persecutor and how members of the clergy (including the pope) could become so corrupted. Perpetual struggles for supremacy and recognition between the Pope (the head of the Western Latin church) and the Patriarch of Constantinople (head of the Eastern Orthodox church) for power, status and converts was an ongoing theme. This eventually lead to the Crusades, an ultimately botched and murderous attempt to ‘rescue’ the Holy Land from Islam and reclaim it for Christianity.

As time went on, the divisions between the Western Latin and Eastern Orthodox churches grew, in particular the West’s advent of purgatory and the associated sale of indulgences which the Eastern church condemned. This practice, perhaps the most corrupt in the church’s history, effectively extorted money out of parishioners in return for their salvation. It was a Catholic priest, Martin Luther, who spoke most eloquently about the dishonesty of this scheme. Luther tried to fix the corruption from within the church but was excommunicated, a move that ultimately lead to the Protestant reformation (churches in the West breaking away from Rome). Christian practice in the West would never be the same for Reformed Protestants, Lutherans or even Roman Catholics (as the Western Latin church came to be known after this period). Despite these schisms, all of the churches has to deal with many similar issues such as what to do with religious imagery; Orthodoxy defeated the iconoclasts, Catholicism re-ordered the Ten Commandments and even Protestants were tempted into creating religious imagery.

A History of Christianity is so utterly thorough that reading it is a considerable exercise in learning. There’s no doubt that European history is intricately tied-up with church history. In reading MacCulloch’s work, we learn of inquisitions, colonialism,  missionary work, monasteries, evangelicalism and so ultimately gain a better understanding of European social, political and religious history.

Admirably, MacCulloch does not take sides or ridicule aspects of the church’s history. He is respectful towards everyone and that ensures that this work maintains credibility. MacCulloch explains his personal religious position in a fairly lengthy introduction to his book where he describes himself as a “candid friend of Christianity” rather than a believer. Importantly, MacCulloch is an academic which brings a certain rigour to A History of Christianity via thousands of citations. MacCulloch doesn’t try and justify or explain Christ’s miracles or resurrection; his focus is predominantly on the institutional church and in any case, these are matters of faith.

MacCulloch’s writing style can be idiosyncratic (too conversational) at times. On numerous occasions I had to re-read sentences to make sense of them, although this doesn’t significantly detract from the author’s storytelling brilliance.

Last year I read An Introduction to World Religions (A History of Christianity seemed like a logical next step for this Roman Catholic). World Religions introduced an intense vocabulary supported with an extensive glossary. As useful as the glossary was, A History of Christianity doesn’t suffer the same need because the language is less intense. MacCulloch has been especially careful to explain concepts and words carefully to keep the reader engaged. This is the book’s strength.

MacCulloch’s account of history supports the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction. Some of the stories in A History of Christianity are truly incredible. If you’re seeking to understand the history of one of the world’s great religions, I thoroughly commend A History of Christianity, even if you require several months to read it all.

A History of Christianity: The first three thousand years (ISBN: 9780141021898) is published by Penguin Books and available in paperback or electronic format.



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