Spreading, defining, the faith
Posted: 18 May 2010 @ 00:00
Two contrasting views of church history here, says Cally Hammond
When Our World Became Christian 312-394
Church Times Bookshop £16.20
Early Christian Doctrine and the Creeds
SCM Press £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.10
HERE are two books written in radically different ways, on overlapping subjects. A self-professed unbeliever, Paul Veyne provides a disjointed, digressive essay on the triumph of Christianity in the first four centuries AD. In contrast, the Anglican priest Ashwin-Siejkowski has written a tightly organised Studyguide on the formation of Christian belief in roughly the same period.
Veyne’s book is stuffed with generalisations. The writing is often sententious, and the thread connecting his materials is sometimes so fine as to escape the reader’s notice altogether. He opines that religious feeling is aboriginal rather than learned (what does “religious feeling” mean?); that believers see hell as a distant rather than an immedi-ate concern (all believers at all times and in all places?); that Christianity is all about morality (not for all of us it isn’t). He blithely attributes motivations to Constantine — I enjoyed a list of options introduced with the words, “Constantine may well have had the following thoughts”.
The book has its useful moments, putting Constantine’s Christianity in the context of “pagan” religion as a social phenomenon: not all pagan deities are the same, and the imperial cult should be understood in the context of a world of gradations of divinity rather than an absolute divine-human distinction.
When Veyne describes how Constantine replaced the pagan calendar with a Jewish/Christian pattern, it is easy to imagine parallels with the secularisation of time in modern Britain: the calendar is a powerful instrument for changing belief, even when such change has to be disguised.
An odd appendix on ancient Israel and her God states that the best term to describe their relationship is “monolatry” (worship of one divinity) rather than “monotheism” (belief in one divinity); this terminology is attributed to an unnamed “great expert” (presumably Schleiermacher).
Ashwin-Siejkowski has produced a genuinely useful Studyguide, structured around faith statements in a credal sequence, beginning with God and ending with eternal life. Each chapter contains some ima-ginative homework for the reader, illustrations based on ancient artefacts and devotional images (presumably by the author; they are signed PAS), and questions for discussion. As well as the traditional “suggestions for further reading”, he gives the reader helpful internet links to online images and articles.
The author is frank about the difficulties of doing justice, in so brief a span, to the diversity of early Christian beliefs (especially those that fell from favour and have thus left scant traces in the historical record). He also makes clear how in this period teachings cluster around locations as well as people: the first Christian intellectuals were more dependent upon geographically defined sources of scholarly specialism than we are today.
He provides two kinds of text box (one defining key terminology such as “Christology” and “dogma”, the other giving chunks of text from original writers), a time-line, suggestions for further reading, and a glossary. The latter consists mainly of biographies of ancient writers, together with a few technical terms. “Monarchianism”, e.g., makes it in; but “economy” (a key ancient term for the “dispensation” or “arrangement” by which a transcendent God can be operative in the created order) does not.
This is no substitute for a proper index: to find out the meaning of, say, “Theotokos” or “impassibility” (or “economy” for that matter) one must remember where they were highlighted, guess where they are likely to have appeared — or Google them.
The Revd Dr Cally Hammond is Dean of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.
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