What with having several young children, I don’t read as much as I would like in the summer holidays (what with having several young children, there are plenty of compensations!). This summer, I managed just one: a re-read of my first-year church history survey from my undergraduate days, Henry Chadwick’s The Early Church. It’s not particularly thorough, but it covers several bases quite well. Moreover, being Anglican, the author is churchly in his approach and moderate in his tone, both of which I appreciated.
But it wasn’t only a salutary refresher in too-easily-forgotten history, a basic re-education in the early centuries of the Church. What I came away with more than anything else was a renewed sense of the antiquity of the Church: where a century is a short time, and many great crises take decades and even centuries to sort themselves out. And where some crises only sort themselves out by the death of the church in some region. The Muslim invasion finally ‘sorted out’ the Donatist schism of North Africa. A similar fate was suffered by the Nestorians of Central Asia.
Likewise, I was reminded of the flesh-and-bloodness of the great church fathers, who were often just as much church politicians as their modern-day counterparts, great theologians who were not above ill temper, or dirty tricks, in the cause of the Truth (or some lower aim).
And all the while, the word of the Lord increased and multiplied. Sometimes in triumph, sometimes in shame. Sometimes rapidly, sometimes slowly. Sometimes in one place while another died. Sometimes through great men, sometimes despite them.
It would be astonishing if the same didn’t hold true today. How did things look to the orthodox bishops when they witnessed the growth of heresy from exile? What hope did they hold for the Arian Germanic tribes of Northern Europe of ever confessing the divinity of Christ? And, more to the point, how relevant are any of those details to our lives – except that the same theological concerns are ours today.
When some future henry chadwick writes The Church at the Dawn of the Third Millennium, how will the history of our time look with the benefit of the long view? Unless my reading of the Bible is very much mistaken, or my (limited) understanding of the history of the Church thus far significantly askew, the same will be said: there was this crisis, and that heresy, and it took so long and these events to sort them out. In some places, the church withered, in others it sprouted and spread. There were dirty tricks and lots of politics. Great yet fallible men, and some right scoundrels.
And all the while, the word of the Lord increased and multiplied.