Connecting Faith and Life

Henry Chadwick: The Early Church

henry-chadwick-early-church-27035Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1978). Pp 1-289.

Henry Chadwick’s story of the emergent Christianity is an early contribution to the Oxford History of the Church. This is the first book of the expansive Oxford series. In less than 300 pages, the author manages to give an excellent history of the key events and forces which shaped the Christianity in the first six centuries. In the following review, I have first summarised the contents of each chapter briefly and then have engaged in a critical review of the book.

The first chapter titled “From Jerusalem to Rome,” covers the events that are found in the New Testament. Nevertheless, the author provides rich background information to the movements of the first century Christianity. The first part of the chapter clearly portrays Judaism as the cradle in which Christianity was shaped. The author contends to portray the new faith as the continuation of the Jewish hopes of the Old Testament. As the Jewish people were scattered all around the then known world, it became a powerful launching pad for Christianity in the beginning. Christian preachers could easily get an entry into the synagogues to propagate their faith. However, this situation changed with the course of time as Jewish religious people found Christianity as radically different from their beliefs and practices. Chadwick also provides information about the various Jewish sects of the first century and how they responded to the new faith. Though this is useful, the elaborate explanation about some of these sects distracts the flow of the theme of the first chapter.

While describing the expansion of Christianity in early times, the author is brief in reproducing the biblical narrative found in Acts of the Apostles. Nevertheless, he has been successful in highlighting the events that led to the separation of Christianity from the Jewish faith shortly during the end of the Apostolic period. There is good discussion about the struggles of the early church. The differences between the Judaistic Christians and Gentile Christians are dealt with much details. While writing about the differences of opinion between apostles, Chadwick sounds a bit critical of their actions. The last part of this chapter gives an account of the Christian encounter with the Roman Empire. Chadwick observes that the early Christian leaders had a positive attitude towards Roman authorities though they were pagans. However, the response of the emperors towards Christianity varied. Some of them were tolerant but others were bent on destroying the new faith. During antagonistic periods, Christians were often made scapegoats for almost every calamity that struck the Empire. The authorities could not really justify their aversion to Christianity but for the reason that they were Christians. One feels sympathy for the first Christians. They were hated by the Jews as well as the Romans. Chadwick, then explores how Christians responded to persecutions. Although, there was a small minority which lapsed from faith, most often people responded very courageously to persecutions. Soon some developed a theology that favoured martyrdom. It is overwhelming to note that Christianity spread rapidly in spite of this waves of persecution unleashed on them by Romans.
The second chapter mainly presents some of the struggles that the early church faced and the various responses that emerged out of this context. Prior to that, the author gives a synopsis of the fellowship aspect of the community. Chadwick disappoints the reader in this section because he is too brief and provides little that is new. When Christianity came into contact with the pagan religious world around it, existing pagan philosophies attempted to influence the belief systems of the Christians. Apostle Paul dealt with a similar issue in Corinth and Colossae. There was the threat of syncretism. Among the major philosophical threats, gnosticism was the hardest one. Chadwick presents a vivid narrative of the Gnostics and their teachings. He comments that the Gnostics claimed a special knowledge (about individual destiny) and this could be received through some mantras. The author deserves a lot of appreciation at this juncture. He is able to explain some of the tough tenets of Gnosticism in a easy manner. Moreover, he has been successful in bringing out the contrast between the Orthodox Christian beliefs and the heretical views of various Gnostic groups.

The teachings of Marcion and Valentinus are briefly discussed under this section. The second part of the chapter is the Church’s response to these threats. He points out three important factors by which the church countered these heresies. First, the authority of the bishops was established. The bishops were considered as the successors of the Apostles and therefore they were believed to carry the true teachings of God’s word. Second, the gradual emergence of the New Testament canon. The Church laid a great amount of authority to the writings of the apostles. In the process, a large number of other writings which were prevalent were condemned as not authoritative. Third, statements of beliefs called rule of faith were written down. Church fathers like Iraneaus and Tertullian were instrumental in developing the orthodox Christian faith during the immediate post-Apostolic era. The last part of this chapter discusses the ministerial pattern that developed during this early period. The author begins with the ministerial offices found in the epistles of Paul. Then, he goes on to explain how the apostle-prophet-teaching offices of the apostolic era were later shaped into bishop-presbyter-deacon pattern. Chadwick is honest in stating that he is not able to give exact reasons for this transition. The rest of the chapter deals with how the roles of bishops, presbyters and deacons differed from each other. This section is a bit confusing and not easy to follow. Nevertheless, Chadwick makes an attempt to bring out the transition in the organisational set up. He concludes the chapter with a brief comment on the Montanists.

The third chapter deals with the expansion of the Church. Chadwick critically analyses the reasons for the rapid growth of the church in spite of persecutions. He cites several non-Christian historians and even opponents of Christianity to understand the factors. Interestingly, he places the charity and good character of Christians as the major reasons of Christianity’s growth. I think Chadwick is slightly underplaying the role of gospel sharing done by the early believers. The section which deals with the geographical expansion of Christianity is full of names of people and places. Therefore, it does not make an easy reading. The last part of this chapter discusses the pioneering efforts of Christians in defending their faith. Chadwick cites the case of Justin Martyr and his defence against Jewish accusations. Christians also defended their faith by appealing to its acceptance by the people across the vast areas and sections of people. Chadwick considers this as a simple and naïve reasoning. However, I think this is worth a factor to be given serious thought in those days as Christianity’s growth was phenomenal. From chapters four to six, Chadwick presents the life and contribution of some of the famous Christians of the second and third centuries. Justin Martyr’s experience with Platonism before getting converted to Christianity influenced his understanding of Christianity. He even went on to the extend of calling some of the early Greek philosophers as ‘Christians before Christ.’ Justin was considered as an apologist. He introduced to the Christendom what is called as the ‘logos’ theology. Irenaeus, who came after Justin contributed to the Church as a theologian primarily. He opposed two Gnostic Heretic Christians during his life time, Marcion and Valentinus. The ‘rule of faith,’ a primitive form of later day creeds was first floated by Irenaeus. He emphasised more on the authority of the apostolic tradition and writings.

As early as the second century, there arouse a lot of theological controversies. Monarchianism was one heresy which threatened the diversity of Father, Son and the Holy Spirit within the God head. Sabellius was a proponent of this. Two orthodox theologians Hippolytus and Callistus tried to refute this but not with much success. It was Tertullian who refuted this heresy with appropriate teaching from the Scripture. Tertullian commented that just as there in God three persons and only one substance, in Jesus Christ there are two substances, divinity and humanity, both of which belongs to a single person. Nevertheless, Tertullian joined the purist movement called Montanism towards the end of his life. Clement of Alexandria is another important figure mentioned in detail by Chadwick. He too like Justin used Greek philosophy as a school master which led people to Christ. Interestingly, Clement was successful in using philosophy to destroy gnosticism. Unlike Tertullian he was somewhat open to earthly joys and material possessions. Origen, like Justin and Clement sought the help of some of the existing philosophical schools of thought to explain biblical truths. Origen was a strong defender of Church’s doctrine against heresies. Origen was known for his teaching that Scripture had many levels of meaning apart from the literal. He developed fanciful eschatological views. He also expounded Scripture and wrote many commentaries. Chadwick focusses more on the writings and contributions of these great men. Their personal details are not furnished much. As Christianity began to expand in pagan dominated areas, it faced stiff opposition from pagan philosophers. Nevertheless, Christian apologists were able to deal with them effectively. The next thing the church faced was persecution. This is discussed in the seventh chapter. The first wave of persecution was unleashed by Emperor Decius (249-51) on Christians. Many key bishops suffered Martyrdom during this period. The Church for a time went into hiding. When the persecution ended, the church faced a new problem. The question arouse – What should be done with believers who lapsed during times of persecution and later wanted to rejoin the Church? Novation and his followers argued that such people should not be readmitted into the Church as they have committed apostasy.  Nevertheless, Cyprian was against this view.

Again the Church faced persecutions shortly after 350 AD under the Roman emperors Valerian, Gallineus and the great persecution occurred under Diocletian. During this time unlike the popular view that Christians all over the empire suffered, Chadwick clearly differentiates between the worst and least affected Christian pockets within the empire. He also comments on the sad state of differences that existed among Christians as to what is apostasy. The eighth and ninth chapters of the book discuss at length the conversion of Constantine and the consequences of that event. Chadwick presents two views. Some historians opine that Consantine did not believe in Jesus Christ as the Christians proclaimed about him. Rather he identified Jesus as the unconquered sun god in whom he always believed. Others opine that he was converted to Christianity in its true sense because of a vision he had before an important battle. Chadwick keeps his options open. Constantine considered Christianity as an unifying factor during his reign. Therefore he resolved to settle whatever disputes the Christians had. The council of Nicea in 325 was called in order to settle the controversy between the Arians and the orthodox view held by the Alexandrians. Chadwick succinctly notes that this became a precedent for the Roman emperors of later times to interfere in Church decisions. What was achieved in Nicea was a false unity as Arianism continued to spread even after it was condemned. Chadwick also rightly observes how these controversies were affecting the growth of the Church in the fourth century. One great change that happened thanks to Constantine’s rule was the end of major persecutions against Christians. The Church under Constantine’s sons was quite unstable as they supported different theological positions, causing chaos in the Church. Athenesius who stood strong for the cause of the Nicene statement was exiled five times because of Arian favouritism shown by two of Constantine’s sons. At the end of this long controversy eventually the Nicene party gained the support of the emperors. Athenesius’ persistence and the theological sharpness of the Cappadocian Fathers enabled the Nicene position to gain ground.

Chadwick in the following two chapters briefly mentions the attempt to revive paganism under Julian. This effort was defeated by people like Ambrose of Milan. Later Emperor Theodosius brought about the death knell of paganism once for all in the Roman empire. In chapter twelve, Chadwick writes about the ascetic movement that emerged during the end of the fourth century. The factors that led to this are clearly stated by the author. He points out that when the Church became affluent and highly institutionalised some Christians concluded that it was no more possible to live an uncompromising Christian life. As a result they decided to retreat from society. Initially a few individuals like Antony and Pachomeus went into the wilderness to meditate and pray. Nevertheless they also continued to serve the poor and sick. Chadwick, to his credit, does not hide some of the bizarre forms of some ascetic movements during this period. It is also interesting to note that these sporadic movements of the fourth century grew up as strong monastic movements within Christianity on a later stage.
In Chapter thirteen, Chadwick in the first part presents a controversy that came up from the monasteries. Some monks accused the teachings of Origen and his interpretations of Scripture. This was opposed by supporters of Origen’s theology. The later part of the chapter deals with the life and ministry of John Chrysostom. Chadwick presents him as a bold man who stood for his simple and ethical life. He is portrayed like John the Baptist.

Chapter fourteen deals with a few more Christological heresies that erupted during the fifth century over the nature and person of Jesus Christ. The theological differences between the Alexandrian and Antiochean schools are discussed in detail. The background and the leaders of various controversies are mentioned. During the course of this narrative the author also focusses on the various councils which were held to settle the controversies. The council of Chalcedon (451) is given much importance by Chadwick. Chalcedon indeed was a milestone in the history of the Church. The churches of the East were permanently separated from the mainstream Church after this event. There existed Nestorian’s monophysites and the orthodox Christians at the end of Chalcedon council. Although some efforts were taken to bring the monophysites under the orthodox stream, it failed miserably. Chadwick clearly identifies the political factors which were also dominant in causing the divisions.

The fifteenth chapter focusses on the development of Latin theology during the dawn of the fifth century. Unlike the East, the West had a lesser number of theological controversies. The contributions of Tertullian, Cyprian and Origen remained as the theological framework of the West for a longer period. Jerome in the fourth century attempted to develop a distinctive Latin theology. He wrote commentaries and produced Biblical scholarship. Chadwick observes that Jerome’s dream was fulfilled through Augustine of Hippo shortly afterwards. Chadwick then goes on to narrate the life and conversion of Augustine. He enlists important contributions of Augustine. His role in opposing Donatists and Pelagians is dealt well. Augustine was undoubtedly a great theologian and original thinker. Chadwick although presents Augustine in a glorious light. He does not fail to comment on the vulnerability of Augustinian view of predestination.

In the sixteenth chapter the rise of the Papacy is discussed. Chadwick finds at least three essential factors which led to the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome: the claim of Petrine and Pauline apostolic traditions, the well developed organisational and liturgical custom and efficient bishops like Leo and Gregory the Great. In the seventeenth chapter deals with the missionary endeavours of the Church among the Germanic tribes who lived north of the Roman empire. Even before the invasions Arian Christianity had made inroads into these tribes. Therefore during the fifth century when the tribes invaded the Roman empire in the West they came as Arian Christians. This led to conflicts between the orthodox Christians and the Arian Christians. In the second part of the chapter Chadwick highlights the missionary efforts of Gregroy the Great in reaching out to Anglo-Saxons and Scots.

The last chapter gives a brief account of the liturgy, art and music of the early Church. Chadwick opines that many of these were taken from the religious practices of the synagogue community. Many of the Judaistic symbols and practices were adopted by Christians and new meanings were given. Chadwick sites some of the early liturgical prayer forms and creedal statements. He also gives us a glimpse of how Christian baptism and Sunday worship were held during the early centuries. Similarly while commenting on art Chadwick notes that although early Church fathers strictly prohibited any form of images, Christian paintings depicting Bible stories emerged during the third century onwards. Chadwick also shows that there existed a varied expression of worship among the Christians. The book comes to end with a conclusion which sums up the entire book.

Chadwick’s “The Early Church,” is certainly one of the best introductory books on Church History available in the market. Written primarily to introduce the various events that shaped Christianity during the early times to a popular reader, the book serves its purpose. Nevertheless, the contents of the book is the result of good historical research. Therefore, it provides a good launching pad for history students too. It provides an overview of so many things which casual students of Church history probably heard of but may not have really understood. This book can serve as a pointer for further research and study. The writing style is pleasing although it covers a lot of details. This book would improve if the print and the format is changed to adapt to the present day readers.

The flow of the book is on the following line – Chadwick first shows how Christianity had its roots in a synthesis of contemporary ideas and beliefs, and analyses the causes of its persecution under Roman emperors, the fanaticism of its martyrs and its bitter internal controversies. Second, he highlights on the conversion of Constantine and the edict of Theodosius and its consequences for the church. After these, the church had to reconcile itself to a different role. Chadwick, finally, demonstrates how this new responsibility with its struggles led to the emergence of the two vital aspects of Christianity, the monastic movement, and papacy. Critically analysing, the book has a good number of merits and a few demerits. As an introductory book, the author has done justice in covering most important aspects that pertain  to the first six centuries. Nevertheless, one will be surprised to see a few key events either down played or ignored. For instance, Chadwick has not recorded the split of the West and the East in detail though it was a significant aspect that affected the Church. Similarly, the barbaric invasions of the West and the conversion of these tribes has not been dealt enough. Even persecutions are given only less space in the book. Moreover, Chadwick has arranged events in a thematic way, rather than Chronological. This has both advantages and disadvantages. Positively, this helps the readers to focus on one issue at a time. Negatively, a casual reader can lose track of the historical thread as the reader jumps from one topic to another. More than anything, Chadwick deserves our utmost appreciation for his attempt to give the readers an objective and honest work. While writing about the theological differences  and practices of the various sections of the early church, he has not pushed himself in to give his personal preferences or subjective views. He leaves it to the reader to come out with their own evaluation of the events and the debates. Truly, this can be applauded as an ecumenical account of Christian History. He tries not to favour any sections.

The book has a lot of information on the development of theology over the first six centuries. At the same time, I feel that Chadwick has given more space for describing the various controversies and theological debates. The life stories of patristic fathers is not set out clearly whereas their theological contributions are dealt with in detail. In a small introductory book like this, I wonder whether that can be justified. I also find Chadwick not clear in making his readers understand which view had the final say at the end of debates and councils. It would have been good if Chadwick had added a glossary at the end of the book to identify certain major sects. Though he gives an elaborate background of the controversies, he does not explain some key terms, like Monophysites. Nevertheless, Chadwick’s book would remain as one of the much sought after introductory volumes for many more years to come.

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