671: Historian Philip Jenkins explores the “Jesus Wars”

How did Christianity get into such a mess? That’s our question this week as we welcome Two Philips: Quaker novelist, pastor and teacher Philip Gulley—and noted historian Philip Jenkins.

      As a religion writer, reporting from the U.S. and overseas over the past three decades, I can’t think of a more important contemporary writer than Philip Jenkins in exploring both Christianity’s past—and its future. Among clergy, teachers and small-group discussion leaders, news of a fresh Philip Jenkins book is an occasion to spend some of that money saved up for truly useful books. You’ll find Jenkins’ 2002 book, “The Next Christendom: The Rise of Global Christianity,” on bookshelves of well-informed religious leaders.

      But, you may be asking: Does Jenkins write for an ordinary reader like me? Are his books too dry? If I crack open this book, will I find enough interesting material here to spark a small-group discussion in my congregation? The answer: You’ll find yourself full of fresh insights and questions. Jenkins sees himself as opening doorways into dark corners of religious history—and mysterious corners of religion’s future—for everyday readers. So, as we explore the contemporary mess of Christianity, let’s leap waaay back into this excerpt from Jenkins’ new book, “Jesus Wars.” Judge for yourself whether you can use this book to fuel a spirited discussion. I’ll bet you can!

      You can order “Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 years” from Amazon.


      “May thouse who divide Christ be divided with the sword, may they be hewn in pieces, may they be burned alive!” (Second Council of Ephesus, 449)

      Jesus once asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” … Over the past 2,000 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 nonspecialists—including many clergy—would soon lapse into grave heresy. …

      The Word was made flesh, God became man. But how does that Word relate to the man called Jesus? … Through the first four centuries of Christianity, believers tried many ways of resolving these problems of Scripture and logic. Different churches—leading thinkers and scholars—varied in the stress they placed on Jesus’ humanity or his divinity, and without exercising too much ingenuity or text twisting, they found biblical passages that supported all these opinions. Some early Christians thought that Christ was so overwhelmed by Godhood that his human nature was eclipsed. In that sense, we should think of Christ as the manifestation of God walking the earth, clothed in human form as a convenient disguise. The Word took on flesh as I might put on an overcoat. So, are we to believe that Christ’s sufferings, all the tears and blood, were a kind of playacting or illusion? Others saw Jesus as a great man overwhelmed by God-consciousness. Somehow, the Spirit of God had descended on him, with his baptism in the Jordan as the likely moment of transformation—but the two natures always remained separate. Christ, from that perspective, remained chiefly human. Some thought the two natures were merged, indissolubly and eternally; others thought the connection was only partial or temporary. Was Jesus a Man-bearing God, or a God-bearing man? Between those extreme poles lay any number of other answers, which competed furiously through the first Christian centuries. …

      Each side persecuted its rivals when it had the opportunity to do so, and tens of thousands—at least—perished. Christ’s nature was a cause for which people were prepared to kill or to die, to persecute or to suffer martyrdom. Modern Christians rarely feel much sympathy for either side in such bygone religious wars. Did the issues at stake really matter enough to justify bloodshed? Yet obviously, people at the time had no such qualms and cared passionately. … Horror stories about Christian violence abound in other eras, with the Crusades and Inquisition as prime exhibits; but the intra-Christian violence of the fifth- and sixth-century debates was on a far larger and more systematic scale than anything produced by the Inquisition and occurred at a much earlier stage of church history. …

      This was not a case of one side producing better arguments in its cause, of a deeper familiarity with Scrpiture … What mattered were the interests and obsessions of rival emperors and queens, the role of competing ecclesiastical princes and their churches, and the empire’s military successes or failures against particular barbarian nations. …

      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 the 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 other subsequent conflict within Christianity, these debates over Christ’s nature involved the most fundamental realities of faith and practice.

      THE LINES, above, are just a small portion of Jenkins’ own “Introduction” in the book. There’s a lot of exciting, fresh material in this book to fuel a vigorous discussion, we think. Come back to ReadTheSpirit every day this week for more in our provocative series on the messiness of Christianity. Wednesday, you’ll meet Philip Gulley in our in-depth interview with him. On Thursday, we welcome Philip Jenkins to ReadTheSpirit, as well!

      REMEMBER: You can order “Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 years” from Amazon.

      (Originally published at readthespirit.com)


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