An uncultural eye on controversy

The Church in Ancient Society
December 13, 2002

This long-awaited book by Henry Chadwick, who is perhaps the best-known English-speaking student of early Christianity, is the latest in the series The Oxford History of the Christian Church, which has included, inter alia , several volumes on the history of the papacy and specialised studies of German and Scandinavian Protestantism and of the church in 18th-century France.

The scope of a work covering the first six centuries of the history of Christianity is rather broader, and the opportunities for detailed historical analysis or interpretation necessarily more limited. If I had to make one criticism of this volume, it would be that it should have been reconceived as two or perhaps three chronologically divided works, or even as a series of thematically focused studies. This would have provided a more focused and critical account, incorporating many of the discussions of sources and historical problems that are necessary for a proper understanding of the period. "The early development of Christian theology" and "The social and cultural position of Christianity in the Graeco-Roman world" are, though inevitably intertwined, still to some degree separable (and are distinct academic specialisms): it would have been perfectly valid to split them as contributions to a series such as this one.

As it is, what Chadwick offers is a series of penetrating essays on almost every major figure (and some more minor ones) of the early or patristic period of the church's history, and on themes such as doctrinal controversy, worship, monasticism and spirituality and anti-pagan apologetic. There are more than 60 chapters, several of them very short, and inevitably some of the observations on particular topics could have been consolidated to greater effect. Two-thirds of the book is devoted to the second half of the period, from the rise of the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine (306-37), to the time of Gregory the Great. This reflects accurately the availability of much fuller sources that make a narrative history of doctrinal controversies and of the regional centres of early Christianity possible for the later half of the patristic period.

The narrative core of the book is made up of a series of chapters on the Arian controversy of the 4th century (over the doctrine of the Trinity) and the Christological controversy of the 5th century (over the doctrine of the incarnation or the nature of Christ's humanity). The continual reappraisal of the events and personalities of the Arian controversy that has been such a feature of patristic scholarship over past century is reflected in Chadwick's nuanced account, well supported by reference to original sources. This ably combines examination of the beliefs of the main theologians of the 4th century with a focus on the political realities, conciliar decrees and developing system of canon law and church government that so often constrained their actions. Anyone who still needs convincing that the Christian church in the later Roman empire was a complex organisation, whose creeds and doctrines emerged through a long and often painful process of compromise and change within its structures (and not as a result of academic debate between intellectuals), should gain a lot from Chadwick's account.

The "ancient society" of the title is somewhat misleading. The Roman empire is taken for granted as the background to the early history of Christianity, once it had emerged from its Galilean Jewish homeland (though Chadwick does not neglect the exclusively Jewish period of Christian history, with seven chapters on the New Testament and its immediate context). But there is little of the "cultural" treatment of early Christianity - whether the impact of Christian beliefs on Roman society or the way in which Christianity was shaped in turn by dominant cultural trends, which is a feature of the work of modern scholars such as Peter Brown and Averil Cameron. Chadwick, then, serves as a "Christian" companion to works of secular critical and narrative history of the late Roman world, of which there are numerous recent examples at academic monograph and textbook level.

For teachers of theology, The Church in Ancient Society will be a valuable resource. Perhaps it may attain a more general readership as well, though the problem of scope may perhaps impede its gaining a wide audience among professional historians interested in how their colleagues who study the early church pursue their craft.

Graham Gould is editor, Journal of Theological Studies .

The Church in Ancient Society: From Galilee to Gregory the Great

Author - Henry Chadwick
ISBN - 0 19 924695 5
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £80.00
Pages - 730

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