THIS is the first volume of a three-part history that traces the growth of the Church from its beginnings in the New Testament up to the Council of Chalcedon in the mid-fifth century. The second and third parts (Books, 14 August 2015; 16 March 2018) have already been published, and this volume brings the ambitious project to a conclusion.
The book opens by reflecting on the contrast between the power of the Roman Empire, ruling over the Mediterranean world, and the physical weakness of the Church, which was extending across the empire. The two stories interweave as the book proceeds with descriptions of the power struggles, cruelty, and debauchery of the Roman government placed alongside the struggles, suffering, and witness of the church communities around the empire.
It was a creative period for the Church, which was providing a radical alternative to the society controlled by the Roman Empire, by spreading its gospel message of mutual assistance, respect for life, recognition of the importance of chastity, and the doing of good to others. These built up a kind of spiritual republic, created and nurtured by the power of the resurrection.
Within this double narrative, the Fathers of the Early Church lived, taught, and often died for their faith. The strength of this book is the vivid telling of their stories. We are introduced to Fathers such as Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and the towering figure of Origen. They are placed in their political context, their life stories are vividly recounted, and there are lengthy extracts from their written works; so we can read their ideas in their own words. We sense their vitality and creativity, and see how they shaped the future Church.
The two stories of Church and Empire interact at first with intermittent violence and persecution, growing in intensity and then leading to a dramatic change when the Church suddenly found itself allied to the State. At times, we need to suspend a critical historical judgement when, for example, the angel causing Peter’s release from prison is placed alongside military campaigns as all part of the one story. The book does not engage in historical research, but, rather, invites us to enter into the story, sharing in tribulation, and then emerging into a new co-existence with the State as the Church takes shape.
The Revd Dr John Binns is Visiting Professor at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Cambridge.
Suffering and Glory: The Church from the Apostles to Constantine
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