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Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years

Image of Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years
Book Number: 
Date Fred Read: 
April 2017
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Philip Jenkins
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Philip Jenkins has a joint appointment with Penn State U. and Baylor U. He is author of many books, including The Lost History of Christianity. (For his books I’ve read, click on his name.)

The Amazon website for the Kindle edition is

I bought the paperback edition but use the Kindle edition here since it has more to read about this book. The home page has a very short summary (click on ‘Read more’). I recommend that you scroll down the home page to read the Editorial Review by Booklist, which is a better and more specific review. Then use Amazon’s option to ‘Look inside’ and scroll down to the 2-pp Contents. Amazon’s Kindle preview covers the 9-pp Introduction, 3-pp of Terms and Definitions, two 2-pp Maps, and the first 8 pages of the 33-pp Ch. 1 – The Heart of the Matter. Just after Ch. 1 is an important 3-pp listing – Appendix to Chapter One: The Church’s General Councils – seven plus one called the “Gangster Synod.” This Appendix summarizes each council, each of which is covered in the detailed chapters – Ch. 2 to Ch. 8.

The Introduction – Who Do You Say That I Am? – is most important, for it lays out the reasons for this book. It begins with the question Jesus once asked his disciples, "Who do you say that I am? They answered that all sorts of stories were circulating – that he was a prophet, perhaps Elijah or John the Baptist come back to earth. But, he asked, ‘Who do ‘you’ say that I am? Over the past two thousand years, Christians have formulated many different answers to this question. Yes, most believe Jesus was a human being, but at the same time he was also God, one of the three persons of the Trinity. He was both God and man.

“But when we have said that, we have raised more questions than we have answered, as the basic belief in Jesus Christ demands combining two utterly different categories of being. Such a transgression of boundaries puzzles and shocks believers of other faiths, especially strict monotheists such as Muslims and Jews. But even those Christians who accept the basic concept probably could not explain it with anything like the precision demanded by early church councils. By those rigorous standards, virtually all modern non-specialists (including many clergy) would soon lapse into grave heresy.

“The Bible is anything but clear on the relationship between Christ’s human and divine natures, and arguably, it is just not possible to reconcile its various statements on this matter.”

I interrupt my quotes from Jenkins’ Introduction to point out some of this book’s features: Beliefs in various answers held by different people – emperors and/or generals and theologians/monks/laity at different Western or Eastern Mediterranean centers – have led to religious/political councils that were mostly chaotic and many were quite violent to the losers of the votes by bishops, who were voting to decide the answer or interpretation of specific detailed questions, with the winning words accepted as orthodox and the losing words condemned as heresy. And heretics were either expelled, or sent into exile, or brutally beaten and killed. Some losers who protested and vowed to keep speaking and writing while they were in exile because they felt strongly about their understanding of what should be orthodox. But saying this often led to having their right-hand chopped off and their tongue torn out. It was wiser to be silent, pretending they accepted the council’s view of orthodoxy, hoping that another council would reverse the vote on orthodoxy. The violence caused by these councils led me to think that the bishops failed in their orthopraxy, which for followers of Jesus’ Way were taught that violence was always wrong to followers of the Way.

I call to your attention what Jenkins says near the end of the Introduction: “If religion shaped the political world, then politics forged the character of religion. When we look at what became of the church’s orthodoxy, so many of those core beliefs gained the status they did as a result of what appears to be historical accident, of the working of raw chance. In the controversies of the fifth and sixth centuries, the outcome was shaped not by obviously religious dimensions but by factors that seem quite extraneous.” …”To oversimplify, the fate of Christian doctrine was deeply influenced by just how well or badly the empire was doing fighting Attila the Hun.” …”Pivotal to these ancient Jesus Wars were the four great questions that, to different degrees, have shaped all subsequent debates within Christianity. Foremost is the deceptively simple question posed by Jesus himself: ‘Who do you say that I am?’ And building on this are three follow-ups: What is the Church? By what authority do you do this? And, what must I do to be saved? More perhaps than in any subsequent conflict within Christianity, these debates over Christ’s nature involved the most fundamental realities of faith and practice.” But violence to the losers was the ‘reality’ at most of these councils – think the way of the majority of voters or experience rejection and suffer violence.

The main people involved in councils, 65 of them, are listed alphabetically (with their life span) in the appendix at the end of the book – Appendix: The Main Figures in the Story. For these eras (council dates given below) there were four patriarchies: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch (Syria’s only seaport to the Mediterranean Sea). Later Jerusalem also became a patriarchy.

My summary of the councils are from the 3-pp Appendix to Ch.1: The Church’s General Councils:

  • 1. First Council of Nicea (325): Arius’s belief that Christ was inferior to God the Father was overcome by Athanasius of Alexandria, who taught that all three of the Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – were fully coequal. Athanasius went on to become Bishop of Alexandria. Arian fled into exile.
  • 2. First Council of Constantinople (381) created an expanded version of the creed originally declared at Nicea in 325. The expanded version was (and is) still called the Nicene Creed.
  • 3. Council of Ephesus (431): Nestorious, patriarch of Constantinople, was accused of dividing the two natures of Christ by claiming that Mary was the mother of Christ (Christotokos) because the prevailing concept (Theotokos) that Mary was the mother of God made no sense to the Nestorions, for how could God the Father and Creator be born of a human? But Cyrus, patriarch of Constantinople, claimed that Theotokos should still be orthodox. He won since he had many more bishops and monks present. Cyrus taught the full unity of Christ’s natures, which the Pope in Rome supported, so Cyrus triumphed and the council condemned the Nestorian party. (Nestor had a long life and many looked toward him for inspired thinking. Nestorians were a major group that moved their concept of Christianity further east, all the way to China. Philip Jenkins discusses these movements in book 695.)
  • 3'. Second Council of Ephesus (449): It was called by a strong party that emphasized Christ’s single divine Nature. So it met to support One Divine Nature, but the council degenerated into a mob scene. This gathering was subsequently rejected as a “Gangster Synod.” (I numbered it 3’ – Jenkins put it in parentheses after council 3, so it got no number from him.)
  • 4. Council of Chalcedon (451): It formulated a definition of Christ’s being that presented him as both fully divine and fully human. This definition owed much to the thought of roman Pope Leo. Questions of when Jesus became divine (conception, birth, baptism, crucifixion, resurrection) were wisely avoided.
  • 5. Second Council of Constantinople (553): It condemned the controversial writings – the so-called Three Chapters (which Jenkins doesn’t provide) – but at the cost of creating new disagreements. Only after some years as a prisoner of the empire could the Roman pope Vigilius be bullied into accepting and signing a statement that he accepted the council’s decisions.
  • 6. Third Council of Constantinople (680-81): This council condemned Monotheletism (Jesus had One Will not two Wills) heresy, proclaiming instead that orthodoxy was that Christ was of two ‘Wills’ as well as of two ‘Natures.’
  • 7. Second Council of Nicea (787): declared that icons and images were legitimate, provided that they were’ venerated’ as opposed to being ‘worshiped in their own right.’

The Council whose decision survives to this day is the Council of Chalcedon (451). Pope Leo’s ‘tome’ (not given in full by Jenkins) was what was approved. Basically the question was the interpretation of the way that Mary gave birth to Jesus. What was proposed for approval was: ‘The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee: and therefore that Holy Thing also that shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.’ Jenkins adds “Didn’t that suggest she was going to bear the Son of God and that divine mature would overwhelm or eliminate the human? Absolutely not, says Leo: Though the Holy Spirit imparted fertility to the Virgin, yet a real body was received from her body and, “Wisdom building her a house,” “the Word became flesh and dwelt in us, that is, in that flesh which he took from man, and which he quickened with the breath of a higher life.’

To this from Leo, Jenkins adds “Throughout, Leo stresses the idea of a balance and harmony, suggesting that any overemphasis on either aspect of Christ, either the divine or the human, would produce a result that was illogical or even absurd. Humanity and divinity met in Christ: “For each form does what is proper to it with the co-operation of the other; that is Word performing what appertains to the Word, and the flesh carrying out what appertains to the flesh. One of them sparkles with miracles, the other succumbs to injuries. And, as the Word does not cease to be on an equality with His Father’s glory, so the flesh does not forego the nature of our race.”

Jenkins goes on to praise the careful wording of Leo’s Tome which Jenkins says “Like an accomplished Roman rhetorician, he not only makes his own case but marshals any and all possible counterarguments and shows why they would not convince. With the Tome in hand, any opponent of One Nature theory has a readily available collection of knock-down texts and arguments ready for instant deployment. Even better, of course, was the source, the chair of Peter.”

However, the diversity of theological descriptions of answers to the basic question, ‘Who do you say that I am,’ did not overcome resistance to the well-understood wording in Leo’s Tome. This led to the history contained in Ch. 8 – How the Church Lost Half the World – and Ch. 9 – What Was Saved. In Ch. 8 ends with “In Syria and Mesopotamia, Jacobite and Nestorian churches enjoyed peace and prosperity. By the eight century, the Jacobite church included perhaps 150 archbishops and bishops. Under Muslim rule, the different anti-Chalcedonian churches moved to create more formal alliances and mergers. In 728, a council formally established communion between the Armenian church and the Jacobites, who formed a solid anti-Chalcedonian front.” …”By default then, the future of Christianity lay elsewhere. It lay in those shrinking regions still subject to the Roman Empire, which no longer had any need to conciliate the opinions of an Egypt or a Syria that it no longer tried to control. In the long run, though, the Christian future would be in those regions of Western Europe that had never defied Chalcedon. Chalcedonian ideas triumphed not because of the force of their logic, but because the world that opposed them perished.” [End of Ch. 8.]

Chapter 9 begins with a quote from Karl Rahner: ‘We shall never cease to return to this formula (of Chalcedon), because whenever it is necessary to say briefly what it is that we encounter in the ineffable truth that is our salvation, we shall always have recourse to its modest, sober clarity. But we shall only have recourse to it (and this is not at all the same thing as simply repeating it), if it is not only our end but also our beginning.’ Early in this chapter the following is brought up between a resident and a pilgrim. They listen to each other, then it ends with “Well, said the pilgrim, that’s all very well, but all the different groups say the same thing: unless you are in communication with us, you’ll be damned. How should I know which version of the truth is correct?” This sets the focus for this chapter. Jenkins adds the key to this chapter: “Looking at history, the process of establishing orthodoxy involved a huge amount of what we might call political accident – depending on the outcome of dynastic succession, or victory or defeat in battle, or the theological tastes of key royal figures. Throughout, we are always tempted to say: if only this event had worked out differently, or this, or this. It is a story of ifs, and matters might very well have gone another way.

“For later generations of Christians – and, by implication, for other religions – that conclusion is humbling. The Christian experience includes an immense variety of different strands, different interpretations, and most find at least some justification in Scripture or tradition.” …”It is not obvious why one current triumphs over another.” Jenkins’ last paragraph says “Whatever councils achieved, however successfully churches defeated rival interpretations of faith, those alternative ideas and are structural parts of the Christian faith and perhaps integral to human religious psychology. Such beliefs always would reappear and would always need to be engaged and confronted. In an ideal world, free of the power struggles of antiquity, that dialogue can itself be a positive thing, a way in which Christian thought develops its own self-understanding. A religion that is not constantly spawning alternatives and heresies has ceased to think and has achieved only the peace of the grave,”

I strongly agree we should not cease thinking. To do so makes us stagnant in our minds. If we believe we can reach no higher in our spiritual minds, we probably can achieve ‘only the peace of the grave.’

Several years ago I found a four-line prayer in my United Methodist Hymnal, number 597 – For the Spirit of Truth:

  • From the cowardice that dares not face new truth,
  • from the laziness that is contented with half-truth,
  • from the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth,
  • Good Lord, deliver me. Amen.
  • Thinking of the well-intentioned but badly-implemented councils described in great detail by Philip Jenkins, I think this book is a must-read to begin to understand how the church struggled with theological ideas suggested by scripture. I rate this book at four stars – a few crucial writings he did not include.

    But, for those who don’t want to confront these theologically difficult ideas, don’t read this book. Instead concentrate on what’s far more important than orthodoxy – orthopraxy, how we live our beliefs or what we do with our lives – to ourselves and to others, to all the children of God, all peoples on earth.

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