Reading God & Human Suffering, I found it strange how fervently Douglas John Hall could reject historical optimism (the belief that history is progressing inevitably towards the ultimate good) and at the same time how certain he was in his own superior position in history to judge the barbaric Christians who floundered in the mythical “Dark Ages.” On more than one occasion, Hall spoke of our present “post-Constantinian” Christianity with palpable smugness, embracing the double myth that Constantine somehow radically perverted the church and that we stand somehow purified of that alteration. (Frankly, it is only the thoroughly post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment Christian, confused about the significance of those paradigmatic shifts, that can pretend to be in any sense post-Constantinian.)
Hall falls frequently into the error of nostalgia, picturing an original church that is eerily similar to his own conception of Christianity, and as a result of this error tends to paint the era of Constantinian Christianity as a time when all the ills which plague the Christian mind were born and embedded deeply in the Christian consciousness. As with most in the West, particularly Protestants, he marks the beginning of the rebirth of an authentic Christian worldview with the rise of Scholasticism (particularly the writings of Anselm, in Hall’s case). Setting this presupposition aside – at great personal pain – I would like primarily to address myself to three descriptions which Hall offers of Constantinian Christianity which are as crudely mistaken as they are obviously self-serving.
Ascetics: Perverted Sufferers
Hall first takes aim at forms of monasticism which embrace as part of their rule varying degrees of ascesis. Groups such as these (and monks are by no means the only ones guilty here) have made a religion of suffering. Sufferings have “become interesting in themselves…become ends (or almost ends in themselves.” “…suffering is turned into a law, a principle, a soteriological technique…” Hall rejects this misappropriation of the human suffering intrinsic to nature. Suffering which is good, according to Hall, is that suffering which is productive of life, and “the line must be drawn at the point where suffering ceases to serve life.”
It is strange to see monks brought up in this context, as they would most heartily agree with everything that Hall has said (with the obvious exception of their inclusion among those who are being rebuked). Ascesis is not suffering for the sake of suffering nor is it suffering as a means of salvation. The voluntary sufferings undertaken by monks are not purely for the sake of suffering, a benefit unto itself, and certainly no Christian ascetic would suggest that suffering is productive of salvation. Instead, the ascetics suffer in the service of life. They mortified their flesh in an effort to mortify the sins of the flesh, and they destroyed sin in order to progress in life (that is true, abundant life). The purifying power of suffering is by no means a foreign concept to the “pre-Constantinian” church. It is, after all, a prominent theme in both 1 Peter and James.
Hall’s fails both to understand the nature of the church before Constantine and to truly grasp the change which occurred with the advent of imperial Christianity. Suffering as a way of life is engrained in the early church, something which even Hall stresses, and the life of the Christian was lived in the constant fear of persecution (either current or inevitable). With Constantine this all changed, and the average Christian no longer needed to live in fear. The role of suffering in the identity of the church began to be more or less nominal (not unlike many new Christians). The monks were pursuing precisely what Hall is suggesting is necessary for Christians, participation in the suffering of the world in imitation of Christ in an effort to sponsor life.
Imperial Christianity: Apotheosis of Power
In criticizing the monks of Constantinian Christianity, Hall missed perhaps his clearest opportunity to level a pertinent criticism against the role of Constantine in altering the church. When he does decide to target imperial Christianity directly, his criticism falls well off the mark. For Hall, the pre-Constantinian church conceived of God with love as His central attribute. (Am I the only one impressed by how near that is to the position of Christians in the latter half of the 20th century when Hall’s book was written?) Only with the ascent of the Christian emperor to power and his subsequent corruption of the church did Christianity begin to deliberately stress God in terms of power motifs:
To make the faith amenable to the imperial mentality and at the same time a fitting symbol for and reflection of imperial splendor itself, the church through the ages has permitted its message to be filtered through the sieve of worldly power and glory.
Again, the distorted picture of early Christianity Hall presents cannot survive even the test of the biblical witness much less the whole corpus of ante-Nicene literature. In the Old Testament, the Divine-Warrior motif stresses God’s power in explicitly “worldly” terminology: “For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city will be captured…Then the Lord will go forth and fight against those nations, as when He fights on a day of battle. And the Lord will be king over all the earth; in that day the Lord will be the only one and His name the only one.” (Zech 14:2a,3,9) This sort of imperial imagery for God is by no means isolated. “Immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold a throne was standing in heaven, and One sitting on the throne. And He who was sitting was like a jasper stone and a sardius in appearance; and there was a rainbow around the throne, like an emerald in appearance. Around the throne were twenty-four thrones; and upon the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting, clothed in white garments, and golden crowns on their heads.” (Rev 4:1-4) If the imperial Christians were looking for royal images of God, they had them in abundance.
In fact, it is more Hall’s tradition of imagining Jesus as the one on the cross rather than the exalted king that makes him so opposed to power motifs. It has been noted countless times that if you walk into any given church in the West, regardless of denomination, you are infinitely more likely to be greeted by the image of the cross than the image of Christ pantokrator (as you typically would be in an Eastern church). When we are talking about whether or not God is the suffering savior on the cross or the exalted lord of heaven and earth, the West is hardly at risk of over-emphasizing the latter. We have an almost morbid obsession with the broken Jesus hanging on the cross, so much so that we forget that he is no longer hanging there. In the Western imagination Christ is perpetually crucified for our sins (an image which is lamentably in use at youth rallies across the nation every year), and idea which would be repugnant undoubtedly to the early church, before and after Constantine.
The Trinity: Arbitrary Dogma
The above are almost trivial objections to Hall’s conception of history compared to this final point. In his discussion of the value of the Trinity, Hall treats the dogma as in some respects useful but quaint and at other times as positively cumbersome. Hall imagines that after Constantine the doctrine of the Trinity became “interesting in itself” and was therefore “misconstrued.” Hall does not restrict his accusation of arbitrary speculation to the Trinity alone, but extends it to the Christological discussions of the era of the councils. “It is unfortunate that the doctrine of the incarnation of the divine Logos was so soon and so successfully coopted by non-Hebraic assumptions and priorities. Under the impact of a religious and philophical worldview which distrusted matter and sought redemption in the realm of pure and disembodied spirit, the concept of the indwelling of the “mind and heart of God” (Logos) in historical existence was uprooted from its essentially Hebraic matrix and, in the decisive early centuries of doctrinal evolution, encumbered with the heavy, heavenly language of metaphysics and abstract mysticism.”
Could anything be farther from the truth? The assumption that the Father platonized Christianity has been repeated so often and challenged so rarely that it has entered into the modern mindset with the status of infallible dogma. Yet, any honest reading of the doctrinal controversies surrounding the Trinity or the Incarnation see must necessarily reject an escapist soteriology (like the actually platonic Gnostics) or a theology of the disembodied spirit. Hall, and so many others, seems to have confused the adoption of philosophical terminology with the adoption of philosophical presuppositions. But what language did we expect them to adopt? The theology which the nurtured (because we are talking about growth and not innovation) had to be articulated in the language of the intellectual culture of the time. The fact that the terminology was also being used by Plotinus can, in the words of Lossky, “delude only those unimaginative and pedestrian souls who are incapable of rising above rational concepts: those who ransack the thought of the Fathers for traces of ‘Platonism’ and Aristotelianism.’”
More importantly, the concepts of Trinity and Incarnation never became interesting in themselves, they were never pursued out of intellectual curiosity, that is at least not until the post-Enlightenment West took hold of them. These early church debates – productive as they were of unrest, schism, exile, popular uprising, and no small number of martyrs – were not merely the intellectual disagreements of the speculative elite. They sat at the very heart of Christian spirituality, and almost always related very directly both to the question of how we are saved and how we relate ourselves to the God who saved. The affirmation of Jesus’ divinity which gives us that “mystifying terminology” of homoousios was tied directly with his ability of God to save us. If the Son was not coequal with the Father than how was he empowered to save us, and why do we sing hymns to him as God? The centuries of debate about in what sense the Son took on flesh were not particularly heated PBS debates about the compatibility of divinity and humanity. They were struggles to understand how God could truly redeem humanity by taking on human nature, in what sense a God could die, and in what sense the taking on of flesh saves us. They were questions so central to Christian faith that people were willing to die a hundred times over in pursuit and defense of the truth. How Hall paints it, Maximus the Confessor was merely so belligerent so attached to his philosophically cumbersome conception of a Savior with two wills that he would rather have his hand cut off, tongue cut out, and die in exile than be wrong. And how many times did Athanasius go into exile, merely to escape the embarrassment of admitting that he may have been wrong? What arrogant, unreasonable men these Church Fathers were!
If I have learned something recently from Douglas John Hall and Fr. Paul Christy, it is that history is a dangerous tool in the right hands. On the one hand, we may use it to paint to pretty a picture of reality. We can imagine a world where history at every turn validates the institutions which we believe produced it. Just as self-serving, however, we may use history to construct for ourselves a strawman against which to react. We can focus on the seediest most despicable moments of any traditions past – or merely reinterpret neutral events…or for that matter fabricate events completely – in an effort to validate our rejection of them. History will almost always be able to serve the ends to which it is utilized as a means. That is not to suggest, I will quick to point out, that history is entirely subjective. Only that it is malleable by virtue of our incomplete knowledge of it. The fuller one’s understanding of the past, the more cautiously it will be marshaled to that person’s defense.