Book review: Socrates’ “A History of the Church”

I started Socrates’ History of the Church shortly before heading home from Christmas break, right after finishing Irenaeus’ Against Heresies. I wouldn’t be seeing my collection of works by the early church fathers for another year, so I wanted to make the most of it. Alas, I didn’t finish in time, and I had to download a Kindle version to get to the end.

So, why is Socrates writing about Catholic church history? That’s got to be an anachronism. Well, it just so happens that there was a 4-5th century church historian named Socrates. Maybe his parents were big fans of the famed philosopher? The history covers about 140 years of history starting with the conversion of Constantine and narrating the Nicene creed, the Arian heresy, and all the infighting and excommunications associated with it all.

Short pause, because I just have to say it up front: the whole time I was reading this book, I had the song Istanbul, not Constantinople stuck in my head. Constantinople seems to be the center of gravity for this book. While it does talk about some events in the western empire, Rome is only a side story. Socrates, as a resident of the eastern empire, likely stuck to what he knew best and had references for.

From all my studies of history thus far, this period of history is a big gaping hole for me. I took a world civilizations course in high school, but to give you an idea of the level of detail we went into, one of the questions in the China unit on the final was What are the names of Mulan’s three sidekicks? (Ok, so it was the extra credit question, but still). I feel like my sense of history is a vague idea of things going on in Rome and Greece before 4AD, and then almost nothing happened until the American revolution after which everything that matters took place.

What experience I do have relates to Christian history, but even that is patchy at best. Mormons don’t get a lot of nuance in Christian history, because we consider anything after ~100AD to be apostasy. All that two millennia of history is covered in Preach My Gospel with this line:

Even before the death of the Apostles, many conflicts concerning doctrine arose. The Roman Empire, which at first had persecuted the Christians, later adopted Christianity. Important religious questions were settled by councils. The simple doctrine and ordinances taught by the Savior were debated and changed to conform to worldly philosophies.

I got a more in-depth look after my mission when I read James E. Talmage’s The Great Apostasy, which does go into some detail, but is hardly an unbiased account of history. My main take-away was that Christianity lost its purity when it was wrapped in the authority and officialdom of the Roman state.

A slightly more humorous example, I served a mission in Frankfurt, Germany. A Church member there once gave a seminar on a book he wrote about his take on the apostasy. He had actually read some source material by Origen and Athanasius and other main actors of the day, but he interpreted it through his own understanding and experience as a Latter-Day Saint. He essentially said that the council of Nicea was actually just a regular elders quorum meeting or stake priesthood meeting (I don’t know how literal he actually believed this to be). He represented Origen as a faithful elders quorum president defending the faith (there were several anachronisms here: Origen wasn’t alive at the time). Origen still had the doctrine right: a pre-existence, a council in Heaven, theosis, and a God with a physical body. But Athanasius was a cranky old high priest riling things up. Interesting interpretation of history. I’ll have to translate some passages for you guys in the future so you can have a good laugh.

But I think the thing most vivid in my memory is a talk by former Church President Gordon B. Hinckley when he expressed his utter confusion surrounding the Nicene creed:

When the emperor Constantine was converted to Christianity, he became aware of the divisiveness among the clergy concerning the nature of Deity. In an attempt to overcome this he gathered the eminent divines of the day to Nicaea in the year 325. Each participant was given opportunity to state his views. The argument only grew more heated. When a definition could not be reached, a compromise was made. It came to be known as the Nicene Creed, and its basic elements are recited by most of the Christian faithful.

Personally I cannot understand it. To me the creed is confusing.

How deeply grateful I am that we in this Church do not rely on any man-made statement concerning the nature of Deity. Our knowledge comes directly from the personal experience of Joseph Smith, who, while yet a boy, spoke with God the Eternal Father and His Beloved Son, the Risen Lord.

In sum, Christian history is used by Latter-Day Saints as a backdrop to set up an argument for the need of a Restoration. Details aren’t important.

Fortunately, since I have also had more time to read with my long bus rides, I have been able to read some books by authors from faith traditions that do accept the Nicene creed. I remember reading C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity finding I agreed with every word he said until I got to his chapter on the nature of God. It made me uncomfortable at first, but since then I have come at least a little bit closer to Aristotle’s mark of an educated mind (the ability to entertain a thought without accepting it). Hilaire Belloc’s Great Heresies cover has a chapter dedicated to the Arian heresy, the provocation that caused the council at Nicea. I found his interpretation quite compelling:

Arianism was willing to grant Our Lord every kind of honor and majesty short of the full nature of the Godhead. He was created (or, if people did not like the word “created”, then “came forth”) from the Godhead before all other effects thereof. Through Him the world was created. He was granted one might say (paradoxically) all the divine attributes– except divinity… It sprang from the desire to visualize clearly and simply something which is beyond the grasp of human vision and comprehension.

He went further to describe the “feel” of Arianism, as it was more than just an idea, but a social movement:

We might put it vividly enough in modern slang by saying that Arianism, thus vigorously present in the new great discussions within the body of the Christian Church when first that Church achieved official support and became the official religion of the Empire, attracted all the ‘high-brows’, at least half the snobs and nearly all the sincere idealistic tories– the ‘die-hards’– whether nominally Christian or not.

With this interpretation from Hilaire Belloc, I was more prepared to confront Arianism as a powerful and living force within its own day. It’s easy to think that an idea is unimportant or weak if it no longer is a force in the present. And yes, it’s true that the victors write the history. But Arianism was a real thing. It moved people. It drove people to make finely crafted arguments, to call synods, to lose friends and make enemies, and even to kill in the name of the faith. It seems almost ridiculous today over what small fine points of doctrine could drive people to such vitriol. But (and I promise this is the last quote) Belloc says they make all the difference:

There is no greater error in the whole range of bad history than imagining that doctrinal differences, because they are abstract and apparently remote from the practical things of life, are not therefore of intense social effect.

Now, with that long intro, it’s about time I actually get to what Socrates had to say about events of 300-500 AD. A few main points:

Danger of no central authority, fighting bishops

The first thing I was surprised at was the apparent utter chaos of the Church. At the time, there was no real global Church hierarchy. In a Latter-Day Saint context, it’s like there were no stake presidents, seventies, or apostles: all the ward bishops would get together to make decisions. The bishop of Rome would later become the pope, but that hadn’t happened yet. So all decisions were made by synods, a fancy word for Church councils. These were sometimes called by the emperor, who despite not having an ecclesiastical calling (not to mention, he wasn’t even baptized!) exercised a lot of power in decisions in the Church. This often resulted in sharp differences of opinion, often resulting in different factions simultaneously excommunicating each other. Other times, it resulted in a lot more than excommunications, devolving into violence against Christians and non-Christians alike. It’s amazing a Church even survived such divisive times.

I had mixed feelings about the history, because it leaves the question: is there a way to preserve belief without becoming a monomaniacal tyranny? On the one hand, should you take the side of free inquiry, allow people to hold differing opinions, and not have any strict requirements on belief? Or should you have strict border maintenance, excommunicate heretics, and keep members in line?

This reminded me of similar discussions on religion by Jonathan Haidt and his mentor Emil Durkheim: the obligatory nature of religion forms community and stability. It has positive benefits on individuals. As Durkheim said, The individual is not sufficient as an end for himself. And:

If religion does protect man from the desire to kill himself, it is not because it preaches to him respect for his person in itself, but because it is a community. What makes a community is the existence of a certain number of traditional, and consequently, obligatory beliefs and practices that are common to all the faithful. The more numerous and strong these collective states are, the more religious the community is strongly integrated; and greater, too, its protective value.

Durkheim was no advocate of religion: he advocated for making the workplace the integrating factor that would replace religion. But I don’t think that has worked out. IF anything, politics is the new replacement that is enforcing orthodoxies of belief.

At the end of the day, I feel like the question is unresolved: can we simultaneously maintain free inquiry while building strong communities?

Dangerous Christians, heresy hunters, no dissent like in Judaism, different model, conformity

Give me, my prince, the earth purged of heretics, and I will give you heaven as a recompense. Heresy hunters were rampant. There was no room for differences of opinion in doctrine. No matter what side you were on, you insisted on a unity of belief. Such an approach to religion resulted in extremes of violence.

But, well, why? Above, Belloc argued that doctrinal differences, even small ones, can have dire consequences for society. But I would argue that the alternative, insistence on uniformity, had just as dire, if not worse, consequences. Some of these feuds were over a single word: one group insisted on using “homoousious” or “coeternal” to describe God and Jesus Christ, while the others found that non-biblical. Another group refused to call Mary “Theotocos” or “Mother of God.”

It really makes me wish we could take the model from Judaism for doctrinal disputes as described by Peter Enns:

The history of Judaism is a lively tradition of wrestling openly with scripture and coming to diverse conclusions about how to handle it. More so than the Christian tradition, Judaism embraces debate as a vital part of its faith. Disagreements are preserved (not silence or marginalized) in official core texts of Judaism, like the Talmud and medieval commentaries on the Bible. Opposing sides sit side by side as monuments to this wrestling match with scripture– and God.

It seems that we didn’t find value in that approach? Even today, we maintain the approach of the heresy hunter. We don’t see doubt and debate as elements of our faith, instead being fundamentally afraid of them.

Reading Socrates’ History has been very helpful in filling in some of the gaps in my knowledge of my Christian heritage. I think we could all do well by returning to some of these foundational texts. I feel like we keep making the same mistakes. Mormon Twitter right now has similar battles: every time I read about an argument that blew up into vitriol and violence, I noted in the margins: Twitter. We still insist on orthodoxy of thought.

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