Home > Christianity, Early Christianity, History, History of Religion and Culture > A Political History of Early Christianity

A Political History of Early Christianity

  • Author: Allen Brent
  • Pub. Year: 2009
  • Language: English
  • Pages: 348
  • ISBN-10: 0567031748
  • ISBN-13: 9780567031747
  • Format: PDF

In A Political History of Early Christianity, Allen Brent examines early Christianity and its triumph in Roman Empire. Starting with the description of the apocalyptic movement of the earliest form of Roman [Markan] Christianity, Brent moves on to illustrate various aspects that have made Christianity so powerful. Explaining numerous ideas involved in the rising of the Christianity, such as metaphysical reality, church organization, nascent Trinitarianism, Allen Brent also emphasizes the impact of emperor Constantine’s position in the new Christian cosmic and political order: a Trinity of distinct coequal and co-eternal persons was to trump the claims of an imperial monarchy reflecting a cosmic one. Brent discusses the Christian history in the general context of political movements that seek initially to achieve a ‘root and branch’ transformation of present society.

This book traces the history of early Christianity as a political movement with serious political challenges to the Pagan Empire that pagans correctly identified and of which they did well to be aware. The hostility between Paganism and Early Christianity was not the result of an unfortunate misunderstanding but the result of a threat whether overtly or surreptitiously posed by the growth of both the order of Christian societies and the development of the theology that underpinned that order. Stoic and Middle and Neo Platonist assumptions were to produce two rival cosmologies in which Pagan and Christian social order was constructed, with imperial religion relying upon a polytheistic ordering of the cosmos and Christianity, in one form or another, upon a Trinitarian one.

The methodology in terms of which my thesis proceeds can be exemplified from two proponents of the relationship between metaphysical order and political order. The first was Peter Berger who developed a sociology of knowledge in which the metaphysical order was studied as a social construction: what people believe about the world of nature as part of a cosmic order of things external to society is in fact the reflection of social order.1 Reality is socially constructed so as to legitimate the structure of authority within society, making patterns of authority stable and enduring, and not simply unstable and ephemeral, by anchoring social order in some putative order of nature beyond society. Berger however was to emphasize that his account was essentially a study of the role that bodies of metaphysical knowledge whether theistic or atheistic (such as the Newtonian mechanistic model of physics) functioned in the ordering of social relations: he wished in no way to deny further claims to truth that they might make. Thus a given form of society with a given set of social relations might be necessary to explain the emergence of a particular kind of cosmology but such social relations were not sufficient to explain that cosmology and its further development.

One could, for example, write an account of the development of mathematics in terms of economic groups pursuing their material self-interest in which their social interaction was seen to produce various kinds of relationships between mathematical concepts and theorems. Such an account would therefore show how modern mathematics (and in consequence cosmological explanations in modern physics) arose from its generation from the roots of such a social construction of mathematical and physical reality. But at the end of the day, it is quite remarkable that a system generated by such sociological roots that imply a quite different aim actually succeeds in fitting the ‘real’ world. Nevertheless it is difficult to believe that it was purely accidentally that, at the same time that Newton propounded a view of the cosmos in terms of the combination of various individual atoms not further divisible under various kinds of physical forces, Locke articulated his view of the origin of civil society based upon a social contract entered into by individuals at some putative dawn of history. Just as nature consisted of irreducible atoms combined into molecules of various complexity to form an orderly cosmic order, so too irreducibly unique individual persons as social atoms combined under the rules of contract given in a state of nature to form molecular social institutions which in combination gave rise to social order.

Berger in insisting that social forms were necessary to scientific, religious or political ideas arising, but not sufficient, acknowledged Weber’s critique of Marxist determinism in which religious or political ideas were wholly produced by social relations. Weber saw the contingencies of accidental historical events occurring chaotically at any given time as setting the agenda in which certain ideas could emeger. But for Weber ideas determined how the agenda now developed and what conclusions it reached. Any number of societies could be shown historically to have the social and economic conditions that existed historically before the rise of capitalist modes of production. But only in the Europe of the seventeenth century did this begin to take place. Weber claimed that it was Protestantism characterized by Calvinism that carried the agenda forward in this situation in a way that similar agendas in the past could not. Capitalism required limitless production aimed at market success and this required continuous reinvestment of profits productively to continue growth and competition. Similar social and economic conditions had existed previously in other ages and continents, in, for example, ancient China, but capitalism had not emerged in a society in which those who had produced resources surplus to their subsistence requirements had simply devised ostentatious new forms of personal consumption. Popular Calvinism taught that personal choice could not determine one’s personal salvation but only divine election in the inscrutable counsels of God. In order for someone to be convinced of their redemption they needed to be reassured that they had been foreordained to eternal life. But this assurance could not come from any personal and individual choice. One needed business success in order to feel that God smiled on one, and the more the success the more one could feel assured of a favorable providence that indicated one’s divine election. Yet if one spent what one produced surplus to one’s requirements on, as it were, wine, women and song, one would simply show that one was not among the chosen elect. So one reinvested the surplus, being prepared to live puritanically and frugally. Thus popular Calvinism fitted precisely what was required as an idea developed and pursued for the historical events in the time and place of seventeenth century Europe to issue in the capitalist mode of production.3

Quentin Skinner has developed such a methodology in the field of Reformation history and theology. His Weberian argument is that though the coming together of particular events determines which kind of idea is on the agenda, the ideas themselves and their logic are critical for determining why those events had the outcome that they did. Thus Luther’s view on justification and his denial of the objectivity of sacramental grace became critical for the development of modern ideas of sovereignty and the nation state. If you denied any mediator between God and humanity other than the spiritual Christ with whom you treated as an individual, yourself with your God alone mediating your salvation, then the authority of an institutional and international church standing over against and challenging the nation state was entirely removed. If there was no divinely constituted, hierarchical society, which through the ministry of bishops, priests and deacons could objectively absolve and deliver salvation to the individual through the miracle of the font and the altar of the Mass, then sole political power was in the hands of the temporal ruler: there was no absolution to be had from any oath made; there was no threat to the individual’s salvation from excommunication from font and altar. Lutheranism was therefore as an idea, whatever its internal logic, necessary for the rise of the sovereign nation state in which a temporal ruler would exercise absolute power within bounded territorial limits.

It is my object in this book to explore such a methodology in application to the political development of early Christianity from the emergence of the Jesus movement principally in the form found in the Markan, Roman community until the post Decian and post Diocletian emergence of Constantine. My assumption is that there was clearly no inevitability, historically speaking, about the emergence of catholic Christianity as the predominant political influence in Medieval, pre-Reformation Europe from the chaos of events and ideas in the first and second century. Since political and social structure reflects the social construction of the cosmic order of the universe, then for Christianity to triumph it needed to re-order in its own terms Pagan cosmic order as represented by Middle Platonism and popular Stoicism. In executing such a task, it would need to convert Paganism. But it could only do so by adopting for itself and becoming convinced of the formal principles of such pagan philosophies and using them as the tools of such cosmic reconstruction: only in such a way would pagans be persuaded to use their tools in such a new way and so participate in the new, Christian project of cosmic reconstruction and maintenance.

Thus we argue that, for Christianity to succeed, it needed to reconstruct its earlier construction of an apocalyptic or Gnostic cosmic universe. That earlier construction presented a cosmic order in chaos, whether with signs and portents indicating the breakup of the natural order prior to the imminent Second Advent of Christ, or of a natural order equally in chaos as the result of a cosmic catastrophe from which the individual and fragmented soul needed to escape. It was such a cosmic chaos with a natural order breaking down in terms of adverse signs and portents that was reflected in pagan Roman, Republican political order. Augustus in bringing about the political order of the Principate had also reconstructed cosmic order: in the new golden age the portents and prodigies of Sibylline prophecy had come to an end in a new, golden age. For Christianity to succeed as a political force, it needed therefore to reconstruct its apocalyptic or Gnostic constructions in terms of a new, divine cosmic order in which a new, Christian political order would be reflected. Thus from the late first (St Luke) to the second and third centuries the task of reconstructing cosmic order in terms of a monarchical and hierarchical Trinity was begun, with corresponding claims to a Christian social and political order that would reflect it. It is to the fleshing out of this thesis that I will shortly now turn.

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