Christianity was relatively similar to Judaism of its day, which had both the rabbinic interpretations of the laws and the apocalyptic stream where God was going to replace the kingdoms of the world with his messianic kingdom. Jesus’ teachings were broadly similar to what was being taught, so what distinguished his teachings was that he saw himself as both the messiah and God. Apocalyptic Judaism died out after Jerusalem was destroyed, and Christians seemed to have fairly seamlessly transitioned from expecting the imminent return of Christ to his return being in the nebulous future. The first major conflict concerned whether Gentiles needed to obey the Jewish Law. Paul’s said that the Gentiles did not obey the Law, but on the other hand, they were not free to do whatever they wanted, either.
Christians both borrowed from and opposed other religions. Since Gentiles had no concept of the Hebrew God, Paul used the ideas of a dying and reborn god from the mystery religions to help explain, the difference being that the in the mystery religions the god had died in the mythical past, while Christ died and resurrected at a specific time in history. Also, mystery religions were concerned with ritual and the results it produced, while being united with Christ was about being transformed into his loving character. Similarly, John borrowed from Jewish sources which had taken the logos, the animating force of the universe, from the Greeks and identified it with God. John then identifies it with Jesus specifically.
Early Christians needed to identity just what “Christian” meant. Gnostics reacted to the unease of economic contraction of the first century by saying that the physical world is evil, and that our problem is that we got enmeshed in the physical world. So they denied the humanity of Jesus, and that he was actually crucified. They also had secret teachings, and Irenaeus responded with the idea of apostolic succession: the bishops were appointed by bishops who were appointed by the apostles, who would have known if there were secret teachings, and there are not. Now Christian services were fairly free-form, and there were still itinerant prophets wandering about, which were of inconsistent quality, but you did need to honor the prophets. Montanus claimed that the Holy Spirit spoke to him, and could override Paul or anyone, but this meant that anyone could re-invent Christianity. But if you could not re-invent Christianity, that implied that the Holy Spirit had spoken in a certain way to Paul and the others than he does now, and suggests the idea of a canon of Scripture. Marcian fed into the problem: he said that the God of the Old Testament and the New Testament seemed so completely different that they must be different Gods: the Old Testament God created the world and was evil, and the New Testament God did not get involved until he sent Jesus, fully formed, divine and not man (but was actually crucified) to us out of love. He rejected most of the nascent canon to do this. The result of all this was that the Church became more hierarchical to protect orthodoxy; women had been involved from the beginning of the church, but since the model of hierarchy from the surrounding society was male-oriented, that is what the church developed. There also was a focus on determining the authoritative books of the Bible.
Christians initially tried to Jesus was both God and man and not worry about the details, but various people kept going too far in one direction or the other and being clearly wrong, which forced the church to come to some conclusion. Generally the metric was that any solution could not contradict the (nascent) Bible, could not change the liturgy (since people do not like discovering that they have been praying incorrectly), and could not make salvation unworkable. The Sabellians said that Jesus and God were the same, but that was condemned. If not, then would not there be two Gods? Tertullian used the example of that the roots of a tree and the branches of a tree are not identical, but they are both the tree. Arius said if the Father and the Son are not identical, then the Son must be subordinate to the Father, who clearly came first (and he put the idea to a catchy tune). But if there was a time when the Son was not, he must be created, and therefore not divine, which made that unworkable. The Council of Nicaea solved the problem by say that the Son is of the same substance as the Father, but they are different individuals, just like Peter and Paul are one human-substance, but different individuals, except that God is a special case and he always acts in unison. This was not entirely satisfactory, so clarifications were needed. The Latin-speaking Christians tended to think of God as one and needed to explain how he was three, and the Greek-speaking Christians tended to think of God as three and needed to figure out how he was one, which involved a lot of debate and misunderstanding. All these theological discussions were not just abstract. When you went off to be martyred, it was not much help if Christ only seemed to suffer (Donatism). Athanasius thought that Arianism implied that God might change his mind, and what if God changed his mind about salvation?
After the Empire split, the two halves began developing independently of each other, since they rapidly stopped learning each other’s language. In the East there were two major developments. One was a discussion on how deification, the process of man becoming God (“partakers of the divine nature”, 2 Peter 1:4), worked. Maximus the Confessor noted that we cannot understand God, as he is inaccessible to us. The reason for this is that God is “simple”, that is, he cannot be broken into sub-pieces. But in deification, we become joined to the divine, which is multiple pieces becoming one. Later, Gregory Palamas said that the energai of God, filter down to us like sunbeams and in participating in them, we participate in God. The other development was icons. Earliest Christians made no images, like the Jews before them, because you could not make images of God. But Jesus was also man, and you can make images of man. So Jesus, Mary, and the Saints got lots of icons in the city. The countryside tends to be opposed to the urban decadence, and in the 700s, Emperor Leo and his son had their support from the countryside, so there was a raging debate, which ultimately the iconclasts (the Emperor’s side), lost.
In the West, Augustine in the 400s was the most influential figure for centuries. He had two hugely influential ideas. One was that nature of man: original sin. He gets all broken up about stealing pears as a youth, and Placher says the reason is not excessive Christian “holiness” (which, frankly, it sure seemed like when reading Confessions), but rather, he did evil because he wanted to do evil. Later, he wants to become a believer, but cannot, until he heard a voice from next door saying “take up and read”, whereupon he picked up his Bible, read wherever it opened, he suddenly understood, and gave his life to Christ. So he said that, in his experience, we sinful—we want to do evil—from the beginning, and that it is divine grace that enables us to come to God. Augustine had chosen to begin evil, but could not choose to quit without God’s enabling. Pelagius, appalled at the moral state of Christians in Rome, said that Augustine lacked virtual and discipline, and that God could hardly condemn people if they had no ability to please God. Augustine replied that maybe it was easy for Pelagius, but if we could choose to be righteous, why would we need Christ’s death?
Augustine’s other idea was the City of God and the City of Man. After Rome was sacked, a lot of people blamed the Christians for causing the pagan rituals to be neglected (since the idea of paganism is that “we” have empirically discovered a set of rituals that keep the gods happy and keeping society working well; to neglect those rituals risks the chaos that the rituals prevent). Augustine said there were two cities. The City of Man seeks wealth and power; the City of God is the community of believers loving each other. Both are distinguished by love. In the City of Man, one subordinates the common good to one’s lusts, while in the City of God one subordinates oneself out of love to the good of the community. The problem with Rome was that they chose to build the temporary City of Man; if they wanted Rome to be the eternal city, they should have chosen the City of God.
The first Christians lived as outsiders in society, so just normal Christian life required a certain heroism, but when Christianity become normalized, heroism required more. Roman culture in the days of the early church assumed that purity came from denying the flesh, especially celibacy and this naturally was adopted by the first monastics starting in the 400s, the Desert Fathers, who went out individually into the desert and ate little, so as to deny the flesh. Benedict valued moderation, and developed a monsastic Rule that systematized the process, which avoided excesses by being both strict and considerate. However, each monastery was independent, which when coupled with increasing wealth and some monks being placed in the monastery by their family rather than having chosen the lifestyle themselves, led to some very lax monasteries. In 910, some French monks founded Cluny in the middle of a forest. It was successful, and when it planted new monasteries, they were run centrally from Cluny. After about 100 years this reached its natural limits. In 1098 the Cistercians were followed, which was neither individual nor centralized: periodically all the abbots got together and discussed problems and solutions. This system, combined with the fact that Bernard of Clairvaux joined, led to a revival. In 1200 Dominic founded the Dominicans, which focused on getting a good clerical education and then going out to serve the common people, rather than staying cloistered in contemplation of God. Similarly, Francis also served the common people, although he emphasized poverty.
One long-ranged theme was the practical mechanism of salvation. Holiness through poverty and ascetic living was too much for most people. But grace was unpredictable. Augustine said that works could not contribute to our salvation. John Cassian (who brought monasticism from the East) said that non-Christians do good works, so clearly grace is not a requirement for good works, and since Christ died for all, why would God only will some to be saved? Thus while grace is required for salvation, one could move towards salvation with good works. And while some refuse it, God offers salvation to all. Caesarius thought this made God seem ineffectual, and he thought that since it was impossible to refuse God’s grace, God had to limit to whom he offered it: grace is not given in response to a prayer, but causes a prayer to be given for grace. Gottschalk took this to the extreme: that we could not use our will for good, so God took over our wills; this was rejected at a church council in the 800s. Most people wanted some reliable process, and this developed into the sacraments, although the official seven were not codified until 1483. Baptism was one of the earliest sacraments, and it washed your sins away, but it could only be done once, which led to early Christians delaying baptism later and later. Penance was developed as a one-time, lengthy process that also absolved your sins, but again people started delaying it until the end of their life, and since monks had the habit of confessing weekly to their abbot, that developed into a weekly into confession and penance. The Eucharist likewise took a while to develop. The Council of Nicaea in 787 said that the bread and wine became Christ’s body, but since Augustine said that we should not take spiritual things literally, the Western bishops were more cautious. Paschasius Radbertus in 831 agreed with Nicaea, but even still in the mid 1000s Beringer of Tours objected, saying that after a millennium of eating Christ’s body, surely it would be up by now. The discovery of Aristotle offered a solution to the more tangibly appealing idea that the elements actually became Christ’s body. Aristotle noted that things keep their substance but change their properties, like water becoming ice; the Eucharist miraculously does the reverse: the bread and wine keep their properties but change their substance, and this is a tangible means of grace.
There were several notable theologians in the early second millenium. Anselm of Canterbury (1000s) agreed with Augustine that faith comes first; he said that faith informed understanding. He has two notable ideas. The first is his ontological argument for God: even atheists agree that the idea of God is the greatest thing that we can imagine, and since something that exists is greater than an intangible idea, God must exist. It feels a little bit like sleight-of-mind, but at the same time there is a timeless appeal, and it is hard to make a case against it. The second idea is a new view of the Atonement. The prevailing idea was that the atonement worked by God tricking Satan. Adam had given his authority to Satan when he obeyed him, and Jesus appeared to be a man, but he was also God, so when Satan crucified him, he overreached the authority he had been given. This allowed God to punish Satan, which he did by taking back humanity. Anselm said that Truth could not deceive, and he said that we had dishonored by our disobedience and therefore incurred a debt. But we could not do extra work to pay our debt, since we already owed God everything. Only God could do the extra work required to pay the debt, which Jesus did by voluntarily suffering. Peter Abelard (1079 - 1142) thought this made God look like a sadist, enjoying Jesus’ suffering. He thought that Jesus was an expression of God’s love which inspired and enabled us to love God in return. (He was professor at the University of Paris in a time when professors were expected to be celibate, and he ended up lovers with a student, and when her uncle got wind of it, the result was they both ended up in monasteries.)
The discovery of Aristotle set off a bombshell in the 1200s. Both Plato and Augustine thought that you looked inward for truth; for Plato the ideal-intangible Form of something was its deepest truth, but Aristotle thought that you should draw your conclusions from observing the world. This led him to say things that contradicted Church teachings, and led to Aristotle being banned in places. Some Christians thought Aristotle was right, some thought he was only partially right, but Thomas Aquinas synthesis faith and reason. He noted that Aristotle’s approach of observing and coming to conclusions was useful for things in the world, like habits of fish. Philosophy could even demonstrate the existence of God (we observe that things happen as a result of an action; trace this back, and there must be a First Cause to start all the actions in the universe going). But it could not say anything about the necessarily-existing God; that is what revelation does. Revelation augments reason. Now Plato thought that the Form was the highest ideal, so ideal was to transcend the physical world into the ideal Forms, which sat awkwardly with the Christian idea of a bodily resurrection. Aristotle thought that things had both Form and substance, and Aquinas said that the body was the substance and the soul made the body into a human. Therefore, the body was good, and things like sex and marriage were also good (but not polygamy because that destroyed friendship between man and woman, since friendship is based on equality).
The problem is, that previously authority descended from God down through the church hierarchy, and Aquinas had created a separation between the revelation and reason, between church and state. Naturally, this only grew wider with time. Realism was platonic, concerned with Forms, but the nominalism that developed said that there were no forms, only conventions that we developed. Aquinas said there is no form of “white, fluffy cloud”, nor are there individuals, but classes; all we can know is white and fluffy, and we decided to call those things “clouds”. Scotus said we could know individuals, and instead of Aquinas’ focus on what was reasonable for God to do, he thought we could look at what God actually did, which resulted in his conclusion that even if Adam had not sinned, God still would have incarnated as Jesus to reveal his love to us. William of Ockham thought that we must restrict ourselves to what God actually has done. He also developed a “razor” to shave off unnecessary objects and take the minimal idea as correct, and said that why postulate a form if three individuals will do the job. He and Scotus agreed with all the orthodox beliefs, but William said that logically, if we collectively choose to call white, fluffy things “clouds”, then it is the collection of believers who call the pope “Pope”, and, in fact, both men and women have a responsibility to hold the pope accountable. Marsilius of Padua went further and said that authority derives from the people, and that the people need to hold the church accountable when necessary.
Nominalists thought that God could save however he wanted, but normally he wanted rules. The problem is, that led to insecurity on their part (not the rationalists, who were fine with God being arbitrary, because he orders everything). The nominalist ideas also led to more emphasis on God saving individuals than on God saving humanity. Similarly, it gave support for mystical experiences, since those are individual experiences. They are also available to everyone, no university training required, and you could report them even if you were are woman. The problem that arose here was that it was not threatening when mystics talked about union with God in almost sexual language, because in sex two people remain two people, but it was threatening when they started talking about becoming one with God, even thought it was common earlier and in the Eastern church.
In the theological debates of the early church, the bishop of Rome had access to lots of written sources to aid in the discussion, and more importantly, consistently chose the winning side. The eastern empire had multiple large cities, and so the five patriarchs were the bishops of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Rome. When the empire split, the church in Rome helped take up the organization the secular government was no longer able to provide. And in a situation where there is not a strong government, physical security requires pledging allegiance to the local lord, so the church hierarchy was able to protect its bishops and monks who owed allegiance up the hierarchy, ultimately to Rome. In 1309 things had deteriorated to the point where Rome was no longer safe, and the Pope moved to Avignon. When he died, the people of Rome demanded that the next Pope be Italian and live in Rome, and the Cardinals obliged, but immediately left Rome, claimed they had been coerced, and elected a new Pope. Historically the church would have called a council to resolve the situation, but one of the popes would have ignored the result, so ultimately the bishops decided that the church council is what gave legitimacy to the pope, and that in exceptional circumstances, such as this one, it could act independently, although when the council tried to enforce that later it did not work.
The plagues and famines of the 1300s led to expectations of Christ’s return, an emphasis on personal piety, and a desire to rid the church of corruption and focus on ministering to the common man. John Wyclif was a sort of intellectual populist, saying that since we are predestined, according to Augustine, we should focus on the Bible, and inspired a English translation of the Bible. His agreement with Augustine that the communion elements were only spiritually Christ’s body and blood got him condemned as a heretic, so it is the Lollards who brought the English bible to the people. John Hus proclaimed the need to reform the church, saying that priests should not have concubines, should not interfere with popular preaching, and should give out communion wine to everyone, which they had stopped doing out of fear of Christ’s blood being spilled. The “Modern Devotion” groups in the Netherlands typically lived in community, but insisted on the importance of remaining in the world to serve people, rather than withdrawing from it in monasteries. In a similar vein, Bendetto Morandi thought that we should make the world better and Giannozzo Manetti said that God created a beautiful world and we are responsible for continuing to improve it. The idea that we could improve on God’s world was a new one.
Martin Luther’s break with the church in 1517 resulted in a new framework for Germany and the Netherlands, and a ripple-effect in the Catholic church. After struggling for years discovering never-ending sins to confess, he read Romans and realized it was by grace that we are saved. This, combined with the selling of indulgences were the main causes of the break. The papal structure had grown over the centuries and now needed more money, which was financed with indulgences to get out of purgatory, on the theory that the saints had accumulated an excess of merit which accrued to and could be apportioned by the church. His experiences led to him to say that we did not participate in our salvation, it was by grace alone. He reject papal authority and claimed the Bible alone as his authority. However, Germany at the time was ruled by princes, and he believed that rebellion was wrong. Carlstadt and Müntzer thought that the Holy Spirit was a better teacher than any church leader, but Luther thought this would lead to chaos. Both Luther and Zwingli (Switzerland, contemporaries) focused on keeping the church united (Luther hoped, vainly, that he would inspire reform by the Catholics), but attempts to unify to the two Protestant movements failed over irreconcilable differences over what happened in Communion: Luther took the Bible literally (although he did not know how the elements became Christ’s body because he rejected transubstantiation), while Zwingli agreed with Augustine that it was only in a spiritual sense. Luther and Zwingli won, though, compared to those who thought the church should only be composed of the committed believers. The Anabaptists are the best known of the “Radical Reformers”, most of whom were pretty far out on one spectrum or another. The best known descendants of the Anabaptists are the Mennonites, still known for the the social shunning of transgressors that the groups founded by Menno Simmons did.
John Calvin thought that God predestined people, but it was not an important part of his theology. The important thing for him was contributing to God’s glory in some way. After his death people, Holland became officially Calvinist, and made predestination a theological centerpiece, while Calvinists in other places had to live in more hostile environments and did not focus on it as much.
In England, there continued the steady of people who wanted a purer church composed of people who were following Christ in living a righteous life. There were different varieties of these Puritans, who were more successful in New England than in old England. Catholicism was seen as owing allegiance to a foreign power, since the Pope ruled over actual temporal land, and therefore Catholicism was seen as traitorous. But the Puritans were social chaos. So the Church of England took a middle road, where unity was more important than doctrinal purity, and thus the official position on some doctrines was that multiple views are okay, although it did reject transubstantiation in favor of a more Augustinian approach.
The Enlightenment changed the place of religion more than it changed the doctrines. In the Middle Ages people thought their lives mattered because they fit into God’s order; after the Enlightenment, God mattered because he could fit into our lives. There were a number of causes of this: wars (ostensibly) over religion, the fact that the result of the wars of religion was that nearby regions might have different views which made it more difficult to think that I must have the correct view, the attitude of question assumptions that was foundational to scientific inquiry, scientific discoveries while theology kept talking about the same things, and the rise of nation-states which tended to make the church second to the State. Reason was still viewed as important, and starting with the Cambridge Platonists, who thought that theological differences did not justify all the bloodshed of the English Civil War, gradually developed into “natural religion”, that is religion derived from reasoning about the world, rather than religion derived from an authoritative text. This was largely: there is a deity, men know their vices, and there is reward/punishment in the afterlife. Generally, Enlightenment Christians tended to think that “excitement”, that is emotional displays of passion or Holy Spirit ecstasy were signs of excess.
The Romantic period looked more favorably on emotions and experiences, and combined with nationalism created a value for “our” culture. This trend tended to emphasize enjoying “our” Christian tradition because it is what history has given us, rather than because of theological reasons. There was also a tendency to try to incorporate history into theology, since history of different cultures did not inevitably point to Christianity. Kant had thought that there were things-in-themselves, which are unknowable but are what ultimately create our experiences. Hegel thought that all we know is our experience, so what we have is, first, a thinking subject, but second, that thinking subject requires an object, but third, that object is part of the thinkers experience, so is not separate from it. So experiencing the world also changes the world, and thus the world must exist for God to be a thinking being, but God is not separate from the world. He thought that Christianity used metaphors to express the truth that Philosophy more clearly expressed. Hegel also though that history is the process by which the human race comes to self-understanding, which David Strauss used to say that the Gospels were myths but the truths expressed in them are valid. Ludvig Feuerbach said that Hegel had it backwards: God is simply our expression of what the ideal Man is. Karl Marx thought that theology was not useful if people were oppressed and impoverished, and that practical action was needed.
The twentieth century continued these trends. The more liberal parts of the church tended to emphasize the importance of dealing with poverty, while the fundamentalists, started in Princeton, went back to the basic fundamentals (biblical inerrancy, the virgin birth, the satisfaction theory of the atonement, bodily resurrection, and the miracles of Jesus), more as a reaction to the church of the late 1800s that was comfortable being part of culture rather than critiquing it. This is still influential in American conservative Protestant churches. In the US, theology also had to deal with feminism, from simply seeking for more equality, to throwing the whole thing out because it was male dominated. There was similar thinking happening around racial equality, and even some partnership with Marxists over poverty.
This book is an excellent summary of Christian thought over two millenia, which shows both how Christian thought was influenced from within (for example, the nature of Jesus, and the nature of the Communion elements) and how Christian thought responded to cultural influences (an emphasis on reasonable Christianity during the Enlightenment, for example). Covering 2000 years in 300 pages requires brevity and clarity, which Placher has succeeded in. This is a book assigned at some seminaries, for good reason. It is succinct, comprehensive, and identifies the root causes of the ideas.
I loved this book and it gave much a much better perspective on both the kinds of things Christians have thought about in the past (I discovered some people had already thought some of my thoughts on less-well-traveled areas, which is kind of encouraging). I also hated this book, because while it took me about thirty minutes to read a chapter, it took me ninety minutes to two hours to take notes on it, because it is really hard to summarize a summary. It is worth the effort, but it does make it slow going. That aside, this is an excellent book, I highly recommend it.