Are you hungry for a rip-roaring tale of theological intrigue filled with conspiracies, Byzantine plots, murder, and mayhem? Or are you longing for a solid, informative, and accurate history of the development of Christian orthodoxy? If your answer is yes to both, Philip Jenkins's Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years (HarperOne) is your book. The church historian's latest is a page-turner for anyone even remotely interested in the history of Christianity and/or the Roman Empire.
Jesus Wars recounts in vivid detail the centuries-long struggle to define and enforce the orthodox doctrine of the person of Jesus Christ. The story begins in fourth-century Constantinople, where Roman emperor Theodosius I made Christianity the official religion of the empire and called a council of all Christian bishops to settle once and for all the controversies about Jesus' humanity and divinity.
Far from settling the matter, however, Constantinople I (First Council of Constantinople, A.D. 381) engendered a dispute about Christ that eventually led to the fall of the Roman Empire and permanent divisions between Christians. Jenkins is well known as a scholar of Christianity's rise in the "Global South," a catchall for the non-Western world. In Jesus Wars, he explains the origins of some little-known (to Westerners) branches of Christianity, including the churches of Ethiopia, Egypt, Syria, Armenia, and Persia (roughly modern Iraq and Iran).
Virtually all Christians since Constantinople I have agreed that Jesus Christ was and is in some sense both human and divine. But the question of how that truth is to be expressed and defended led to the first killings of heretics by Christians. The great Christian cities of Antioch and Alexandria fell into political and religious rivalry over the fine points of Christology. Each city also wanted stronger influence in the new imperial capital, Constantinople, and so plotted to overthrow the city's patriarchs and replace them with their own favorite sons.
Jesus Wars recounts blow-by-blow how bishops, monks, emperors, wives and mothers of emperors (often as powerful as their husbands and sons), and laypeople tortured and killed each other in a long orgy of heresy-hunting that was inseparable from imperial politics. Like many other commentators on these events, Jenkins seems to view arch-heretic Nestorius, Antiochian patriarch of Constantinople in the early fifth century, as a relatively benign, misunderstood soul who was just trying to protect Jesus' full and true humanity. He was deposed and exiled, with many of his followers killed for their belief in the two natures of Jesus Christ. (Truth be told, Jenkins fails to do justice to the depth of the Nestorian heresy, which amounted to a denial of the Incarnation.)
Alexandrian patriarch Cyril, who almost single-handedly defeated Nestorianism in a controversy leading up to the third ecumenical council (Ephesus I in A.D. 431), comes across as only a little less diabolical than successor Dioscorus, who led a band of monks who killed the bishop of Constantinople at the so-called Gangster Synod at Ephesus in A.D. 449. In trying to be fair, Jenkins inadvertently reveals his sympathy for the Antiochians and his disdain for the Alexandrians.
The great fourth ecumenical council at Chalcedon in A.D. 451 was, like the others, called by an emperor and supposed to settle the controversy over whether Christ has two natures (Antioch's view) or one (Alexandria's view). Out of the council came the Chalcedonian Definition, which articulated the doctrine of the hypostatic union: Jesus Christ was one person of two natures "without confusion, without change, without division, without separation."
But it did anything but settle the controversy. Eventually, through much bloodshed, most Christians in Egypt and the Middle East broke from the churches of Rome and Constantinople and founded rival Christian traditions. One of those traditions is Nestorianism (because of belief that Christ's two natures were and are in some sense separate, so that the union was less than complete), the other Monophysitism (because of belief that Christ's two natures merged to form one—primarily if not exclusively divine).
What makes Jenkins's account of these events different from others is its clarity and color—none of that dry-as-dust writing one usually finds in tomes of historical theology. His prose sparkles with epithets such as "flaky megalomaniac"—a description of Roman emperor Justinian who, Jenkins says, ruled well only when he listened to his wife, the empress. As for clarity, readers will not find an account easier to understand, thanks to Jenkins's relatively detailed description of the many sides of the controversy.
As a historian and not a theologian, Jenkins may be forgiven for attributing the unlikely preservation of the doctrine of the Incarnation as articulated in the Chalcedonian Definition to "political accident." Some attribute it to divine providence. For example, if emperor Theodosius II, champion of the Monophysite cause who condoned the Alexandrian murder of patriarch Flavian at the Gangster Synod in 449, had not been killed in a horse-riding accident in July 450, the Christian world may have become permanently Monophysite. Jenkins treats this crucial event, which made possible the defeat of Monophysitism at Chalcedon possible if not certain, as accident. Many orthodox Christians view it as divine intervention.
From this theologian's perspective, a flaw in Jenkins's book is its tendency to treat the Chalcedonian doctrine of the person of Christ (hypostatic union) and the Nestorian doctrine and the Monophysite tendency to deny the full and true humanity of Jesus as equal contestants in the claim to orthodoxy. Even a historian, but especially a Christian one, should be able to see that only the Chalcedonian Definition protects belief in the Incarnation—the central tenet of Christianity.
What is an orthodox Christian to make of the claim that "Chalcedonian ideas triumphed not because of the force of their logic, but because the world that opposed them perished"? In fact, I would argue, Chalcedonian ideas were no mere compromise cobbled together to still strife, but simply new ways of expressing ancient Christian belief in the true humanity and divinity of Christ—something found in the writings of earlier church fathers such as Tertullian. Perhaps the Chalcedonian doctrine deserves more credit than Jenkins gives it.
Jenkins is undoubtedly a scholarly historian and a marvelous writer. Whether he understands Christian doctrine correctly is another question. For example, he wrongly associates kenotic Christology—the idea that in the Incarnation the Son of God gave up his omniscience—with adoptionism. He also seems to contrast Chalcedonian orthodoxy with popular devotion that "unabashedly worships God lying in a manger." In fact, only a Chalcedonian Christian can worship God as also a real human baby lying in a manger. The Chalcedonian doctrine is that the eternal Son of God, the Logos, equal with the Father, was born, suffered, and died in and through his assumed humanity. "God died" is not an expression of Monophysitism, as Jenkins implies, but a thoroughly Chalcedonian one.
To historians, the strong message of Jesus Wars is to take the role of religious faith in political affairs more seriously. To theologians, it is to take the role of politics in theological affairs more seriously. The two have always been inseparable—at least since Constantine. Nevertheless, eyes of faith can see the hand of God at work in and through the acts of sinful rulers preserving the truth of the Incarnation in the churches.
Roger E. Olson is professor of theology at Truett Theological Seminary and author most recently of God in Dispute: "Conversations" among Great Christian Thinkers (Baker Academic).
Copyright © 2010 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Jesus Wars is available from ChristianBook.com and other retailers.
Philip Jenkins won a 2003 Christianity Today book award in the Christianity and Culture Category for his book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity and a 2007 award of merit in the Missions/Global Affairs Category for his book The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South. Christianity Todayinterviewed Jenkins about his book The Lost History of Christianity.
Previous articles relating to church history and heresy include:
Leaders Aim to Heal Ancient Schism | Leaders from the Oriental Orthodox and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) are crafting a joint statement in order to heal the schism over Christ's natures that occurred after the Council of Chalcedon. (April 6, 2008)
A Marriage Made in Byzantium | When it came to determining doctrine, there were limits to an emperor's power. (Christian History, January 1, 2005)
Tangling with Wolves | Why we still need heresy trials. (July 1, 2003)
Why I'm Not Orthodox | An evangelical explores the ancient and alien world of the Eastern church. (January 6, 1997)
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.