April 08, 2014
This is Part 11 in a series about why evangelicals should care about the early church. If you are just now joining us, you can read Part 1 here; Part 2 here; Part 3 here; Part 4 here; Part 5 here; Part 6 here; Part 7 here; Part 8 here; Part 9 here; Part 10 here; Part 11 here; Part 12 here; Part 13 here; Part 14 here.
It is often claimed that “history is written by the victors,” that those who won the battles (whether military, political, or theological) got to dictate the way those battles were described subsequently. And it is certainly true that the story of the great theological battles over Christian orthodoxy in the early centuries of the Church have—for most of Christian history—been described from the point of view of the belief that came to predominate.
Accordingly, more recent scholars have argued that we need to look at the same controversies without prejudice toward the “losers,” and over the last 200 years a new history of the great theological controversies has been written from perspectives sympathetic to the poor “heretics” who had been maligned by earlier historians. These heretics, the new history alleges, were not actually “wrong.” They were just on the wrong side of the political power plays that dominated the early church. Their only crime was that they lost the war, and they were painted falsely by the victors as malevolent souls intent on destroying the church.
In some ways, the new history does give us a more complete view of the past. It tends to focus on political and social issues more than theological ones, and as such it reminds us that there is always more than theology going on in theological controversies. The new history also reminds us that the victors—the “orthodox”—sometimes twisted the words of the “heretics” or took them out of context to make the losers seem worse than they were. Even more important, the new history reminds us correctly that the heretics did not SET OUT to destroy the faith. No serious Christian tries to ruin the church on purpose.
At the same time, the new history is beset with serious problems of its own, problems that are rarely acknowledged. First and most important, this new history is ALSO being written by the victors. If the traditional history was written by the ANCIENT victors, this new one is being written by TODAY’S victors—the scholars who represent the assumptions and perspectives that are in the ascendancy today. Those assumptions are generally naturalistic (discounting the action of God in history and understanding all events solely in terms of human actions) and relativistic (discounting the notion that there is such a thing as “truth,” and therefore discounting the church’s long-standing insistence that it MATTERED whether, for example, Jesus was fully divine as Athanasius said, or semi-divine as Arius implied).
Put simply, the view that is “winning” today has no place for theological truth at all, and so it sees “Christian orthodoxy” as an arbitrary construct developed for political reasons and imposed on the church by force. This view is scarcely able even to conceive of a world in which people’s salvation actually depends on whether Christ is like this instead of like that. Scholars who hold to this new relativistic view see nothing earth shattering about the great debates of the church, so they assume that Christian leaders were just being mean when they suppressed the writings of those who disagreed with them.
Another serious problem with this new view of history is that it purports to be objective. Scholars consistently give the impression that by treating the “heretics” sympathetically, they are removing the biases of the ancient victors who dictated the first writing of history. But rarely do those scholars acknowledge that in the process of doing that, they are also introducing biases equally great. To assume that it matters not at all whether Jesus is fully God or semi-divine is CERTAINLY NOT to be objective. Rather, it is to make an extreme value judgment, exactly the opposite of the value judgment the early church made when it declared that it makes all the difference to people’s eternal salvation whether Jesus is fully God or less than God. Indeed, NO ONE in the early church—least of all Arius himself—would have agreed with the judgment that it makes no difference whether Jesus was like this or like that. The new history calls itself objective, yet at the most basic level it carries an assumption with which no one at the time—and indeed no real Christian at any time period—could agree. It is a sad kind of logic indeed that enables one to operate from a fundamentally ANTI-Christian perspective while still claiming to be unbiased and objective.
“History is written by the victors.” True enough, but history is also RE-written by TODAY’S victors. And those of us who think the great truths of theology actually matter—indeed that the salvation of the world hinges on them—need to be very careful about the way we read and utilize the version of history that today’s scholars present to us.
Dr. Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity. His responsibilities include further developing the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus, which explores the historical foundations of the Christian faith.
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