Want Some Jesus Wars?

Available at CBDThere is immense, cultural pressure on Christian groups to identify themselves with the Church Fathers, the Great Church Councils, the Orthodox (i.e., “straight”) Faith, and the Catholic (or, “universal”) Church, but to be identified with biblical Christianity draws bewildered, even skeptical stares. The Bible is too complicated and too easily-distorted to provide a clear, practical foundation for the Christian faith, supposedly, so the “creeds” (decrees) of the Great Church Councils became the conventional way to define and identify Christianity. (Church membership classes, or “Catacysim”, often focus on the creeds more than the Bible.) Even Xenos, Columbus says in its Statement of Faith, “We affirm significant historic creeds of the church, such as the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed.” At NeoXeos we certainly would agree with those creeds, but their value and importance is greatly exaggerated, if not grotesquely distorted.

(history professor, University of Philadelphia) we see how the Great Church Councils were unable to distill God’s Word into a concise creed, so they convened yet another council to try again. The end product we know today as “Traditional Christianity” or “Historic Christianity,” but it really should be called “Jesus Wars”, because it was not a pretty picture that emerged.

In Jesus Wars, by Philip Jenkins (history professor, University of Philadelphia), we see how the Great Church Councils were unable to distill the revelation of God into a concise creed, so they convened yet more councils to try again. The end product we know today as “Traditional Christianity” or “Historic Christianity,” but Jenkins appropriately titled it “Jesus Wars”, because what emerged was not a pretty picture.

The Spanish Inquisition was a grotesque beast, most people would agree, but did you know this beast was growling 1,000 years earlier, back in the Christian Golden Age of the Great Church Councils? The Nicene Creed from that era is thought to define Christianity, so why not embrace the Second Council of Ephesus which soon followed Nicea? Stick this cheerful message in this year’s Christmas cards:

May those 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 Wars provides solid, historical reasons to hold the traditions of church history at an arm’s length, while holding your nose. If the Inquisition was a savage counterfeit of biblical Christianity (and it was), so was the era of Great Church Councils:

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. (Jesus Wars, p.10,11)

People are generally aware of the authoritarian and violent history of European Christianity, especially as it emerged from the Dark Ages, but the same evils were underway in the east a millennium earlier, when Eastern Orthodoxy formed an intimate relationship with secular states. Among the many corruptions imposed on biblical Christianity, the most reprehensible is the superstitious magic smeared across the simple, sweet  communion Jesus celebrated with his disciples. Later designated The Eucharist, it was morphed by the endless pontifications and speculations of the Church Fathers:

Even the Eucharist became a vital component of religious terror…In extreme episodes, communion was enforced by physical violence, so that the Eucharist, which is based upon ideas of self-giving and self-sacrifice, became an instrument of oppression. (Jesus Wars, p.11)

The Eucharist became “an instrument of oppression” because they believed entry into the Christian faith was controlled by this ritual, a traditional belief still held by Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. With the Eucharist, human institutions controlled exclusion or membership in the Body of Christ, which explains these bizarre stories of terror using communion, shortly after the Chalcedonian Church Council:

“They were dragged up to communicate: and when they held their hands above their heads, in spite of their screams their hands were seized, and they were dragged along, uttering shrieks of lamentation, and sobs, and loud cries, and struggling to escape. And so the sacrament was thrust by force into the mouths of some, in spite of their screams, while others threw themselves on their faces upon the ground and cursed every one who required them to communicate by force.” (Jesus Wars, p.12, quoting from the historical archives of the Eastern Orthodox church.)

At the same time,

In the eastern city of Amida, a Chalcedonian bishop dragooned dissidents, to the point of burning them alive. His most diabolical scheme involving taking lepers, “hands festering and dripping with blood and pus,” and billeting them on the Monophysite faithful until they saw reason. (Jesus Wars, p. 11)

Such is the look-and-feel of early church tradition, and Jenkins chronicles abundant similar accounts. A favorite is the account of political struggles in Alexandria, Egypt, over the “patriarch” seat, the highest office held in Eastern Orthodox churches:

Some of the Alexandrians, at the instigation of Timothy. . . dispatched Proterius when he appeared by thrusting a sword through his bowels, after he had fled for refuge to the holy baptistery. Suspending the body by a cord, they displayed it to the public in the quarter called Tetrapylum…and, after dragging it through the whole city, committed it to the flames, not even refraining themselves from tasting his intestines, like beasts of prey. (Jesus Wars, p. 190-191)

The most bizarre examples come from the fifth and sixth centuries, but the corruption of biblical Christianity was clearly in-motion by the time Constantine legalized it and held the first Church Council at Nicea in 325. At that time the Donatists in North Africa were hunted down and massacred in the name of Christ because their beliefs were a little odd.

Jenkins is a historian, so the book makes excellent reading for history buffs, which also means it would be rather dry for those more familiar with Harry Potter reading material.

As a historian, however, he falls short of explaining the often-bloody Muslim takeover of Christian strongholds along North Africa and the Near East, leaving the reader with the false impression that Islam grew entirely by peaceful means. Yet there is significant historical weight for his assertion that conditions were made ripe for Islam (and barbarian) invasions after the Empire was weakened by the endless creedal and political intrigues of the Great Church, also called the Catholic (universal) Church:1

By the time Marcian died, Rome had been sacked once more, this time by Vandals (455), and the Western empire was left immeasurably weaker…We might think that the Roman emperors in this time would be entirely focused on mere survival, but for thirty years after Chalcedon. many of the issues faced by the Eastern rulers involved theological debates. (Jesus Wars, p.186)

So that, by the time Islam arose:

The split within ancient Christianity prepared the way for outside powers who would exploit intra Christian divisions—first the Persians, and eventually the Muslims. Without the great split, the rise of Islam would have been unthinkable. Without the religious crisis, Islam could not have stormed into the political near-vacuum it found in the seventh century, into an empire where most Eastern subjects—Monophysite and Nestorian—rejected their Orthodox! Catholic emperors. So alienated were the Christian dissidents that few were prepared to resist Muslim invaders, who promised (and practiced) tolerance for the diverse Christian sects. (Jesus Wars, p. 31)

At the very least, we can say history proves the inferiority of church tradition against the Bible and the teachings of Jesus and His disciples in the New Testament church.

See also:

  1. Catholic simply means universal, in Latin, and should not be confused with the great European power known as The Roman Catholic Church, which dominated Western Europe by the time of the Scholastics (1100 AD). []

7 thoughts on “Want Some Jesus Wars?

  1. Joel

    It’s hard to defend the history of organized religion. Even Christianity becomes an oppressive and violent force when human institutions and political power get involved. But this is such a huge contrast with the writings of the NT! The book sounds like a great read, Keith! Keep the book reviews coming.

  2. Lisa

    I loved this book. What a freaking mess the church fathers made of the church in such a brief time. As a lady, I enjoyed the chapters on the queens and their influence on Christendom.

    1. Keith Post author

      Well, have you ever considered that maybe it was their influence that messed-up Christianity? (JK)

      It is cool to see, however, that women were allowed to play significant roles in early Christianity, which somehow got reversed as Church Tradition solidified.

  3. kbrooks

    This book looked interesting, so thanks for reviewing it. Church history is so tragic, it’s no wonder people want nothing to do with church or even God. I never realized until you wrote the Neozine series on institutional Christianity that so many people were tortured and killed over the “Eucharist” issue. How twisted that a beautiful symbolic celebration of Christ’s sacrifice became a launch pad for persecution and pograms, or even the stuffy, scheduled ceremony it’s become today. At the Catholic wedding of a dear, believing friend, I had to read the three-paragraph program note four times to figure out whether I was supposed to take communion. And I’m an English teacher! I knew I wasn’t supposed to take it, but the wording confused me, and I didn’t want to offend her. Apparently if you’re a non-Catholic believer you are invited to “celebrate the Eucharist” without partaking of the body and blood. Clearly the only way people come up with all these rules and qualifiers is by not studying the Bible, where communion is accessible, spontaneous, mobile, and deeply unifying.

    1. Keith Post author

      Your experience with gnarly church tradition explains why the Vatican has thousands of lawyers to interpret the layers of laws piled-up over the years. Non-Catholics may be able to “celebrate the Eucharist”, but according to Canon Law they can’t receive God’s grace without the Eucharist, so what is the celebration?

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