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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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1. Judaic Christianity. The disciples of Jesus, if they
appeared ready to confess their despondency and even
weakness at the time of the Crucifixion, made a recov-
ery so rapid that it puzzles the historians. It altered


the course of history; for though, as a result of it, they
did not exactly announce a new religion to their fellow
countrymen, they proclaimed an “event” which
brought the older faith to its culmination, shattering
its traditional framework and calling for a host of new
interpretations. It would seem that, during the lifetime
of Jesus, they may have followed Him without properly
understanding the drift of His teaching; and it would
appear to have been the vividness of their belief in
the Resurrection that transformed the situation for
them, enabling them to feel that now everything could
be fitted into place. It had in fact convinced them that
Jesus was the fulfilment of the famous prophecies on
which the Jews had been relying for a long time; and
that, if the truth had been so difficult to recognize,
it had been because those prophecies—and particularly
the notions of the Messiah and the divine Kingdom—
had been construed in too mundane a manner. Once
this basic insight had been reached, a remarkable work
of intellectual synthesis was quickly achieved, and
there followed an amazing missionary endeavor, which
required considerable bravery at first and cannot be
plausibly accounted for by reference to mundane
vested interests. It is clear to the historian, and it was
amply admitted at the time, that the dynamic behind
all this was the conviction that the beloved Leader
has risen from the dead. There was a strong expectation
that He would quickly return.

It has always been a matter of the greatest difficulty
for Christianity—and perhaps for any similar form of
faith—to secure by peaceful means and sheer mission-
ary endeavor the wholesale conversion of a people
already dominated by an exclusive form of supernatural
religion. The Holy Land was in this position, and
though Judaism was in a fluid and interesting state,
the disciples produced only what appeared to be an
addition to the multitude of sects and parties there—
some of these latter being impressive on the spiritual
and ethical side, and some of them so similar in one
way or another that the tracing of influences among
them is a delicate affair. The Church for a few decades
was predominantly Judeo-Christian, its members still
attending the Temple and conforming to the Law, but
meeting also in private houses or the Upper Room for
instruction, prayer, and the breaking of bread. Until
the war which led to the destruction of the city in
A.D. 70, it was the group in Jerusalem (with James,
the brother of Jesus, at its head) which was the leader.

It seems to have been quickly recognized that con-
verts from paganism were admissible; and pagans were
encountered in great numbers when the gospel was
carried to the virtually Greek cities, such as Caesarea,
on the Palestine coast. Communities were soon estab-
lished also in Damascus and the Hellenistic city of
Antioch, beyond the frontier; and Antioch, where the
term “Christian” came into use, became the center for
a wider missionary campaign in the Greco-Roman
world. But also, at this early stage in the story, Chris-
tian missions (following previous ones on the part of
the Jews) spread eastwards to Transjordan and into
Arabia, and they were pushed forwards to the upper
Euphrates and the Tigris. Here, churches using the
Aramaic tongue became important during the earliest
centuries. Some difficulty arose over the question
whether the pagans should be made to conform to the
Jewish law and this may have created additional diffi-
culty for Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, as Jewish
nationalism became more intense, more exacting. But
the extension into the Greco-Roman world, together
with the destruction of Jerusalem, brought the Chris-
tian faith a higher degree of autonomy, a further scope
for development; and it opened to Christianity the
possibility of becoming a world-religion. The early
need for exposition in the Greek language, the marriage
with Greek ideas, and the contact with a highly devel-
oped culture were to prove important in this connec-
tion. “Historical Christianity”—the religion as we have
actually known it in its concrete development through
the centuries—comes in some respects as a Greco-
Jewish synthesis, owing part of its power to the combi-
nation of two such highly different systems. It would
be interesting to know how the religion would have
developed if, in its early generative period, it had
combined with a different culture.

The historian is hampered because the Christians in
their very earliest period produced so little in writing,
or at least preserved so little. Their leaders knew what
was needed at the time, however, and the whole future
question of authority in the Church would seem to have
been decisively affected by the fact that (for the imme-
diate purpose) so much was realized to depend on the
evidence of eyewitnesses, and the primacy was natu-
rally given to these. Perhaps it is for similar reasons
that one glimpses the importance of certain relatives
of Jesus in the earliest days at Jerusalem; and, of course,
Saint Paul was accepted as an Apostle because his
particular vision of the risen Christ was regarded as
giving him first hand knowledge. Once the eyewitnesses
had passed off the scene, it was natural that a certain
primacy should be conceded to those who had been
closest to them—those to whom they had communi-
cated most; and the objective was the preservation of
what had originally been delivered at first hand—what
in the course of time could only appear in a less cogent
form as “tradition.”

The attempt to secure uniformity in the Church
would seem to go back to the jealousy with which the
Judeo-Christian leaders in Jerusalem regarded the


“Hellenizers”—some of these latter being Jews who
had been affected by Hellenization or pagans who
(before becoming Christian) had been converts to
Judaism. When the “Hellenizers” carried the gospel
to pagans in the Greek coastal cities of Palestine or
in Syria, it would appear that the Church at Jerusalem
would send a “Hebrew” to check on the result of their
work. But, in spite of the care that was taken, there
were aberrations even amongst the Christians in
Palestine; and in Samaria, which had already been
heterodox in its Judaism, an irregular form of Christi-
anity slid away and became the origin of Gnosticism—
this after A.D. 70, when the failure of Jahweh to grant
victory in an apocalyptic war helped to produce a
movement partly directed against the Old Testament
deity. Henceforward, the rise of Christianity was par-
alleled by the multiplication of Gnostic sects which,
in spite of their fantastic character, proved imposing.
Now, more than ever, it was necessary to safeguard
the original doctrines of the Church.

2. The Church in the Roman Empire. The Chris-
tians would appear in the empire as a strange small
sect and for a time their recruits were perhaps chiefly
amongst the lowly, though churches for which the
epistles of Saint Paul were written can hardly be re-
garded as unimpressive. In the Roman Empire the
believers might be hated because they were confused
with the Jews or because the Jews incited the pagans
against them; but in the first two centuries they suffered
from the hostility of the populace rather than the
intolerance of the emperors. After the fall of Jerusalem
it was in Asia Minor that they came to appear most
numerous, most lively, and most capable; and for a
long time this was the most impressive seat of the
Church. In various parts of the empire the teaching
in the apostolic period itself would tend to vary, at
least in its emphases, and the tradition came to develop
on differing lines. Also, as time went on, one great
region (almost as a matter of temperament) would be
preoccupied chiefly with doctrine while another con-
centrated on asceticism and another became interested
in organization.

From the middle of the second century, Helleniza-
tion—which found its climax in Alexandria—had cap-
tured the mentality of churchmen, who, instead of
appearing as a mere sect came out into first-class con-
troversy with leading intellectuals. They had taken
Platonic ideas into their own system, but they set out
to show where pagan thought had gone wrong, and
claimed that Christianity was the culmination of Greek
culture, the real heir of ancient philosophy. While this
was happening, and the Church was settling down to
a long-term role in the world, there arose in Asia Minor
the Montanism which in a sense implied a reversion
to the primitive spirit, the exultant early days. It meant
a wave of “prophesyings,” a reawakening of more
immediate eschatological hopes, a severity in disci-
plinary matters and something like an actual thirst for
martyrdom. Dealing with these problems was part of
the larger process by which a sect that had envisaged
an imminent eschatological climax gradually turned
into a sedentary Church, realizing what it needed if
it were to exist on a permanent footing. Controversies
in the third century about penance, about relapses in
time of persecution, about the validity of baptism by
heretics, and about the rights of bishops, were part of
the consequences of this transition.

Christians were beginning to develop a larger world
view; scholarship was accumulating; the interest in
history was rising. Confronted by the multiplicity of
theological opinions, towards the end of the second
century, Irenaeus had insisted on the steadying influ-
ence of bishops, who were still regarded as the reposi-
tories of the original apostolic tradition. In spite of the
varieties at a certain level, an impressive uniformity
and consistency had been made possible by such pro-
cedures as the communication from one region to
another of the decisions made by local councils of
bishops. At the same time, the heads of great sees
attempted on occasion to secure the support of Rome
in a doctrinal controversy, and this was capable of
being construed later as an appeal to Rome. The
church in Rome, very much a church of foreign colon-
ists at first, was for a long time cosmopolitan—
consisting of groups that had brought their local tradi-
tions and customs with them. Like Christianity itself,
all new sects, all heresies, all novel teaching sought
to reach the capital of the empire; and the bishop of
Rome would have to meet early at a local level the
challenge that these were later to present to the
Church in general. When Christians from further east
brought to Rome their different dates for the celebra-
tion of Easter, he was in a position to be highly aware
of the inconvenience of this anomaly. Perhaps because
he was inclined to be less speculative than the bishops
of the Greek-speaking East, and more concerned for
tradition and order, he not only met problems early
but seems often to have commanded respect by his
actual decisions. In the remarkable period in which
the universal Church was developing its organization,
he gains in importance, though all his claims do not
go unchallenged. To us it might appear that the lead-
ership which he asserted was likely to become due to
him by reason of his merits. At the same time, it was
still recognized that the authority of a bishopric—or
a local tradition—depended primarily on the distinc-
tion of its apostolic origin. Rome could claim to go
back to Peter and Paul.


In the middle of the third century the expansion is
remarkable in Africa and in Western Europe, as well
as in the lands to the east of the Mediterranean. Further
east again, the missionary work pushes across Iraq,
though its effect is to be gravely limited from this point
by a Persian dynasty that is committed to Zoroastrian-
ism. At a time when the Roman Empire was coming
under pressure on the frontiers and was moving to-
wards a grim development—while in any case this
empire held hosts of déracinés, people feeling lost, not
quite at home in the world—the older paganism was
coming into decline. Oriental mystery cults attempted
to answer the need for a salvationist faith with its
mysticisms and forms of sacrament; philosophy outside
the Church was running to religiosity. By the second
half of the third century the Church had become an
imposing body and a powerful influence in the empire,
with important government and court officials amongst
its members. Amongst its assets in the great conflict
of religions were the possession of a sacred book; the
attachment not to a mythical figure or a demiurge but
to a Person who had walked in the world and could
be identified in history; the assistance of an imposing
organization; and the fact that this religion, besides
producing its martyrs and issuing in an expressive kind
of devotion, had become intimately connected with the
moral life and works of charity. The Church was be-
ginning perhaps to suffer even from its prosperity, and,
to some, the rise of heresies seemed to come as a
retribution for this. Already the controversies had
opened which led to the long conflicts over the Holy
Trinity and the Person of Christ.

Christianity had profited from the meeting of Jewish
religion, Greek philosophy, and the Roman Empire—a
conjuncture that seemed to coincide with the Incarna-
tion. It had profited from the defects of all three—
Jewish legalism, the tendencies of Greek philosophy
at this late period, and the frustrations and distracted-
ness of the Roman world. It had appeared at an ad-
vanced date in that long period in which much of the
ability and the yearning of the human race in Asia,
and now even in Europe—the result of a great anxiety
about man's destiny—had been directed to the explor-
ing of the possibilities of the spiritual realm. At a
turning-point in the history of man's religious conscious-
ness, Christianity, moreover, had moved into a highly
civilized world which had an advanced form of urban
life—a world which could support it with a certain
refinement of intellect.

Its success was bound to affect the mentality of
men—bound to alter their way of experiencing life,
their attitude to nature, their posture under the sun,
and their notions of human destiny. Since Christians
believed in the Incarnation, they were bound to deny
the gulf which the pagans had so often presumed to
exist between God and Nature—bound to reject the
view that matter is evil and that salvation must consist
in escape from the body. They could not believe that
in an eternity of cyclic repetitions Christ would go
on dying over and over again for sinners; so they were
released from extreme cyclic theories, while the Old
Testament presented history as moving forward, mov-
ing to an objective, an unrepeatable and irreversible
thing. The Old Testament indeed, forced them to look
at history and regard it as important, and it cannot
have been without significance that in Europe, for
generation after generation, men could not learn about
their religion without turning to what was really very
ancient history. Instead of a great emphasis on Fortune,
Christianity gave currency to the notion that the hand
of Providence was in everything and (as had already
happened) this might mean that retrospective reason-
ing could ultimately make sense of that kind of history-
making which goes on over people's heads, overriding
their conscious purposes and their predictions. Christi-
anity stressed the sanctity of human life, the impor-
tance of the family, the inadmissibility of sexual license
and the evil of such things as gladiatorial contests and
the murder of infants. It regarded suicide as wicked.
It insisted that man's life had a spiritual dimension,
but it combined a high view of personality and its
potentialities with an insistence on man's universal sin.
It must have affected the world—the very conception
of a human being—when, week in and week out, in
numberless localities, men were reminded to reflect on
their own sins, on forgiveness, humility, mercy, and

3. The Christianized Empire. After the failure of
a great persecution and a tyrannical development of
the empire, the Emperor Constantine granted to the
Church in A.D. 313 full freedom of worship and the
restitution of confiscated goods. Henceforward, he in-
creased his favors to the Christians, and the Church
began to move into a privileged position. It could be
argued that his interests as an emperor would recom-
mend an alliance with an institution that carried
power; but there are signs that he was a sincere be-
liever, though pagan in his manner of believing—too
sure that the Christian God was the one who was
victorious in battle and helped him to outwit his ene-
mies. All this came as the climax of the Christian
interpretation of history that had been developing—
with the Hebrews regarded as the fathers of civili-
zation, their language the original one, the language
of God; Christianity being the return to the original
religion of mankind, the one from which the Jews had
lapsed (only to be partially rescued by Moses) while
the Greeks had declined still more—the Church being
the heir of the wisdom of both Jews and Greeks, how-
ever, and the Incarnation coinciding neatly with the


establishment of the Roman Empire, the era of peace.
It seemed that, at this culminating moment, when the
empire itself was becoming Christian, churchmen were
willing to attribute to a Christian emperor the kind
of divinity that they had refused to concede to his

Henceforward it became almost consistently true
that all who wished to gain imperial favor or to hold
office or to make their way in society would have every
motive for joining the Church; and the conversion of
the Roman Empire—hitherto a matter of persuasion
and not without its risks—was to be continued by the
strong arm of the state. This was almost bound to
introduce corruptions in the Church itself, and to in-
crease the danger of a formal Christianity, mixed with
paganism and thinking in pagan terms—the danger also
of official compromises with paganism. It was perhaps
natural, but it was unfortunate, that when there were
parties in the Church, one or more of these (not merely
the orthodox, but sometimes the heretical) should ap-
peal to the emperor, even when he was not inclined
to intervene. This had its special dangers, for in A.D.
325 Constantine himself, having called the first ecu-
menical council at Nicaea, put himself behind the
decree of that Council, condemning the Arian heresy,
but within less than three years was induced to change
his mind.

Stranger still, men so convinced that they spoke for
the right religion—and so sure that government and
power should be at the service of God—were soon
advocates of persecution; and the process in this case
was so understandable that nobody today can feel sure
that, living in the same period and sharing the same
assumptions about religion, he would have decided
differently. Some who were slow in their conversion
to the practice appear to have been brought over when
the victims of persecution declared later in life that
they were now glad that they had been coerced.

Already, in the reign of Constantine, there arose
issues which were to trouble the Church for a long
time. One of them was the Donatist schism, which
arose out of the later persecutions and was directed
against bishops who had consented to the handing over
of sacred books to the magistrates. It led to the erection
of a counter-church in Africa—bishop confronting
antibishop—with violence, persecution, atrocities,
self-immolation, and streaks of the revolutionary and
the apocalyptic. An extravagant, though serious and
understandable, religious issue received tremendous
leverage from social discontent and possibly a sort of
nationalism, and from hostility to the Roman establish-
ment. The trouble lasted for a century, almost until
the barbarians overran the province.

Shortly before 325, Arius, who wished to guard the
sovereignty of God the Father, and may not have been
far enough from paganism to reject all ideas of subor-
dination in the deity, produced a doctrine which, while
asserting the divinity of the Son, secured a clear reduc-
tion of status for Him. The controversy tore the Church
apart until A.D. 381, and it is perhaps not too much
to say that for a longer period than this a great deal
of the ecclesiastical conflict lay between men who
wished to assert both the complete divinity and the
complete humanity of Christ, but could not agree on
the formula that would ensure the one without deplet-
ing the other. The formula adopted at Nicaea,
homoousion (consubstantial with the Father) had al-
ready been rejected in a part of the eastern Church
that had reacted against a heresy of an opposite tend-
ency. It was uncongenial to some because in any case
it could not claim to be scriptural. Various shades of
the Arian and Nicene formulas were attempted by one
party and another, who suggested “like the Father”
and “of like substance with the Father,” though there
emerged one group that diverged further than Arius
and declared that there was no likeness at all. The
emperors provided a complicating factor—now hesi-
tating, now changing their minds, now plumping for
a form of Arianism. The West remained firm in its
support of the Nicene formula, but subtle differences
arose when technical terms had been translated into
Latin, and the West was later than the East in con-
fronting the earlier heresy that had constituted the
opposite danger. At a moment when a great work of
reconciliation was being achieved, there emerged an
emperor who was a Westerner and a pious man, and
he clinched the matter by an edict in 380, and a second
ecumenical council, that of Constantinople, 381, which
confirmed Nicaea.

If the Church had become more worldly and more
contentious, its power to inspire renunciation and the
life of the spirit was reasserted in the development of
monasteries. There had been analogies to this in other
parts of the globe, but Christianity had had from the
first an ideal of chastity and poverty, and the sufferings
of the martyrs had kept its self-denying aspects alive.
The Egyptian anchorites are anterior to the victory
of the Church in the empire, and, when they appear,
they have strange features, particularly their obsession
with the battle against the vast multiplicity of
demons—a battle which could only be won by the
repudiation of the world, a tremendous disciplining of
the body, and a conquest of all ordinary emotions. It
was a battle not to be won by the man who lived as
a citizen in society; and, though prayers—sometimes
repeated in what seems to be an incredibly mechanical
manner—contributed to the objective, the movement
was one which needed the greatest care by the Church.
Nor is it clear how much of its deeper Christian char-
acter may not have been contributed retrospectively


by the influential literature that it provoked. We are
told, however, that Saint Anthony, when he went to
a solitary life in the desert in A.D. 271, was moved by
the injunction: “Sell all that thou hast and give to the
poor and follow me.” The Egyptian desert offered a
remarkable opportunity, and great numbers followed
his example. Something that almost seems like a com-
petition in asceticism may have developed here and
there—and warnings against spiritual pride in this
connection appear early in Egypt—but out of his very
loneliness the hermit was to contribute something of
rare quality to the inner life of the Church.

The anchorites came to rudimentary forms of
grouping for certain purposes, but it was Saint
Pachomius who, in about A.D. 320 or 323, brought to
the problem an essentially organizing mind and estab-
lished the community principle. He prescribed rules
for a whole order of monasteries; and, now not only
renunciation but also obedience was important, while,
besides vigils, readings from the Bible, prayer, and
contemplation, there was greater emphasis on manual
labor. The hermit was to have a significant history in
Palestine and Syria, but Saint Basil the Great, from
about A.D. 357, produced a community ideal which
superseded this and became current throughout the
Greek world. Before the middle of the century the
news had reached the West and very soon ascetic
groups were being founded there, though it was not
until something like two hundred years later that Saint
Benedict established his famous Rule that became the
guide for Westerners. The whole movement, the liter-
ature that arose from it, and the spiritual teaching it
produced had a great effect on the Church in general;
and in the fourth century important people, including
a surprising number of the leading intellects, associated
themselves with it, at least during part of their lives.
In its ultimate extension, it was to have by-products
of an unpredictable kind—especially its contributions
to cultural and even economic life. It may have been
in one sense a protest against the growing worldliness
of the fourth-century Church, or an attempt to find
a new pattern of renunciation, in some cases perhaps
even an escape from civic obligations. But it became,
from the religious point of view, an eminently creative

It is a whole Christian version of civilization that
comes to the front in the fourth century. Biblical
scholarship has advanced and become a technical affair.
Eusebius not only reconstructs the story of the Church
but has an interpretation of world history. The ancient
culture receives a Christian shape, and the transmuta-
tion sometimes shows originality. The greatest intel-
lects of the time, and some of the most imposing Chris-
tian figures of any age are the Fathers of the Church
who cluster in the latter half of the century—almost
all of them highborn, enjoying the best education of
the time, and trained in the monastic movement, yet
emerging also as great men of the world—Saint Basil,
Saint Ambrose, Saint Jerome, Saint Augustine, and
many more. In a period of influential bishops, particu-
larly Saint Ambrose in Milan, the reign of Theodosius
I (379-95) saw paganism forbidden, heretics pursued
by the government, Catholic orthodoxy the official
religion of the whole empire, and the spiritual author-
ity boldly asserting its right against the temporal. The
piety of the lower sections of society made itself evi-
dent in the further development of the cult of martyrs
and the veneration for relics, as well as in the eagerness
for pilgrimages.

Early in the fifth century, Saint Augustine had to
meet an important accusation from the paganism that
still asserted itself, particularly in some of the aristoc-
racy. Barbarian raiders had even reached the city of
Rome. The tragedy that was falling upon the West was
being ascribed to the desertion of the pagan deities.
Augustine answered the charge in his City of God.