THIS is an ambitious book, both in scope and approach. Heather suggests her lack of “personal conviction” may be an advantage. The book strays decisively from earlier attempts to describe and explain how Christianity became a world religion that relied on what the author describes as an assumption of “Christianity’s essential superiority as a religion.”
These, Heather suggests, were written from the end of the 19th century, in a tradition where most historians were themselves Christians or worked at a time when one could almost take for granted that their readers l ‘were. These earlier historians, he argues, simply lacked the factual knowledge of the modern historian or felt unable to take the already known “documented religious resistance” seriously.
Heather suggests that, despite its “substantial and real continuities”, Christianity has been in many ways different “at different points in time”. Heather does not carry his story into the modern world, but he takes a hard look at the early and medieval centuries of Christianity, moving boldly from one aspect of these differences to another. The resulting juxtapositions are often thought-provoking, even if the timeline is sometimes messy.
The story of the spread of Christianity is told in three parts. Christianity began in the Middle East and the epistles describe its spread throughout the Greek-speaking world. The first chapter deals with “the Romanization of Christianity”, beginning with the “political” conversion of Emperor Constantine in 312. There had already been doctrinal disputes to be resolved, involving a series of general councils and the creation of a Creed approved by the Council of Nicaea in 325. The fourth century also brought state approval of Christianity, in 380. By the end of the fourth century, Christianity benefited from the Theodosian Code, with its rules on destruction pagan temples and the prohibition of pagan sacrifices. The state began to place Christians in influential positions.
By 476, however, Rome had fallen to the “barbarians”, whose invasions were causing the Empire to collapse in the early 5th century. The organizational apparatus of cutting into diocesan regions and creating ecclesiastical buildings will make the Church valuable to the State while the secular imperial organization is collapsing. Gregory the Great certainly found it during his pontificate (590-604).
It was already the case that the Latin and Greek speaking halves of the Empire had become separated by the language barrier, and this continued throughout the Middle Ages. Christianity was henceforth to have two patriarchal heads. Constantinople was the natural center of the leadership of Greek Christianity, with additional patriarchs from Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria. The bishop of Rome became the head of the Latin Church in the West, claiming the authority that Christ had given to Saint Peter.
The second chapter asks what “conversion” meant in the creation of a Christian Roman Empire. Here Augustine of Hippo (354-430) is the natural place to start, his confession taking his readers through the details of his personal experience. Augustine city of god was to account for the nature of the Church which attempted to make sense of the messy reality. But other conversions are explored, as part of the confident syncretism of the Roman Empire. The third chapter discusses in detail the limited consistency of how Christianity was adopted in different parts of the vast Roman Empire.
AlamyEstablishing imperial authority over the Church, Constantine presides at Nicaea, in an image which is used as one of the plates in the book under consideration
The second part explores the ways Christianity reorganized during and after the fall of the Roman Empire. Latin Christianity took the lead in importing learning from classical Rome. Its monasteries were endowed with schools, some of which offered a sophisticated education. From the 8th century, the cathedrals themselves were required by the Emperor Charlemagne to run the schools. Carolingian scholarship was vigorous and could be controversial, maintaining lively controversies that continued over the following centuries. By 1200, this had helped lead to the founding of the first universities.
The geographical expansion of Christianity was interrupted by the arrival of Islam. Islam actively sought conversion and took control of much of North Africa and southern Spain. Meanwhile, between the end of the 6th and 12th centuries, the western part of Northern Europe was converted to Christianity by active missionary effort.
The third part describes the rise of a renewed Roman Empire under Charlemagne. Not only did he consider himself a Roman emperor of the last days (800-814), but he set out to conquer the lands of the Saxons to bring them in. His crowning he looked upon as the foundation of a City of God for the day.
At the end of the fifth century, Pope Gelasius I enunciated a principle that had a lasting legacy. Secular power, he insisted, belonged to princes, spiritual power to priests, but the greatest of these powers was the spiritual. Church and state began to struggle for supremacy during the investiture controversy in the late 11th and 12th centuries. In Canossa, in 1077, the emperor kneels to submit to Pope Gregory VII. His claim was that only the Roman Pontiff could be called universal, that “of the pope alone all princes would kiss the feet”, and that the pope could depose emperors and absolve subjects of their loyalty.
The book briefly goes beyond its broad temporal boundaries to consider the Crusades, as reaching “the bounds of Christianity”, the arrival of the friars as active preaching orders, and the final rules set by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. .
The author’s acknowledged “outsider” point of view marks the entire book, though it manages to ask awkward questions and show that Christianity’s expansion into a world religion was messy, varied, and full of setbacks.
There are plates, ten maps and a detailed bibliography, with detailed source references.
Dr GR Evans is Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History at the University of Cambridge.
Christianity: the triumph of a religion
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