God and Man

Philip Jenkins on the battles in the early Church over the nature of Christ.

Philip Jenkins is a fellow at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion and the Erle Sparks Professor of History and Religious Studies at Penn State. He has written more than 20 books on subjects ranging from crime to priestly pedophilia to the future of Christianity. His latest book is Jesus Wars, an account of the intense battles that spanned centuries in the Christian Roman Empire and in much of the Middle East over the nature of Christ. CWR spoke with Jenkins in March about the book and the recent coverage of priestly sex scandals in Europe.

The subtitle of your book is “How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years.” Who were those patriarchs, queens, and emperors?

Philip Jenkins: The four patriarchs are the patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and Rome. The point I’m trying to make there is that there are four—there would be five, later—patriarchs in the ancient Church, all basically on a par with Rome. And a lot of the story is the battle among those different patriarchs for influence.

The most important of the empresses by far is a woman called Pulcheria, without whom Orthodoxy and the Catholic Church would look nothing like they do. She has a sister-in-law called Eudocia, who is on the other side of the fence in these disputes. And there’s also their western cousin, a woman called Galla Placidia, whose life was a romance novel. Pulcheria and Galla Placidia were two Orthodox queens and Eudocia was a Monophysite— a person who believed Christ had one nature. The two emperors: Theodosius II, who was the brother of Pulcheria, and Marcian, who was the husband of Pulcheria. So it all takes place within a fairly narrow family scene.

What were the Jesus Wars?

Jenkins: By about 400 AD the Church has basically decided that Christ is God and man. The issue then is: what is the balance between God and man in Christ? They have these great councils between 431 and 451, and in 451, at the Council of Chalcedon, the empire issues a statement that basically becomes the basis of the Orthodox and Catholic position up to the present day.

The problem is that very few people in the eastern part of the Christian world really accept the statement. And so for the next 200 years, there is a series of coups, riots, rebellions, beheadings, and burnings as the empire tries to enforce its view and different people in the East fight back against the Empire and the whole idea of the Council of Chalcedon. Those are what I call the Jesus Wars, the wars over the identity of Jesus. And they continue until there isn’t much of an eastern Christian empire anymore—until Islam takes over of much of the old Christian world.

What exactly were they fighting about?

Jenkins: The basic issue for them was Christ’s nature, and the balance between the human and the divine. In modern times, the churches that accepted the one-nature idea, who had become absolutely tiny, basically got together with the Catholic Church and decided that maybe they were in error about what they were fighting about for the last 1,500 years. But at the time the issue was: how human is Jesus? The Catholic position holds that Christ is fully human and fully God. The other side, the Monophysite, emphasizes the divine far more, and some people really do emphasize the divine to the exclusion of the human. So I like to say, this is a battle for the human nature of Christ.

How did the Virgin Mary factor into these fights?

Jenkins: Devotion to the Virgin Mary was a big, driving force in the Jesus Wars. All around the Roman Empire, people believed in venerating or worshiping the Virgin Mary as Mother of God. We’re very used to the phrase “Mother of God,” but if you think of it in the context of the time, it’s a fairly controversial idea because it does not give a whole lot of space for the humanity of Christ, and it suggests that God is born. At the time, it worried a lot people who believed that it made Mary sound like the mother of one of the great pagan gods—that it made her a great pagan goddess. This is at the time when the pagan temples were still standing, so there was a worrying idea of syncretism and it was the “Mother of God” thing that drove the initial controversy. The Patriarch Nestorius said the title couldn’t be used. But the question was: if you say you can’t say “Mother of God,” are you denying that Mary was the mother of the divine? And so that gets into a difficult situation. Ultimately, both the Orthodox and the Monophysites agreed that they should venerate Mary.

You use the terms Orthodox/Catholic and Monophysite to describe the two warring sides, but you explain that you are extremely reluctant to do so. Why?

Jenkins: You have to call people something so that others know what you are talking about, but the problem is Orthodox means “right teaching” and everyone believes that they accept the right teaching. In fact, if you asked a Monophysite back in that era what they called themselves, they would say, “We are the Orthodox.” Historically, it’s the other side that’s Orthodox. The other side won and so they get to be called the Orthodox. “Catholic” is less of an issue because that’s more a European name and most of the fights took place in the Middle East. Technically, most of the Monophysites are not strictly Monophysites.

You call them Miaphysites.

Jenkins: The problem with that is these are two words in Greek that have different connotations. A Miaphysite believes that the two natures combine and are then born in one person, which is close to the Orthodox position. A Monophysite believes that there is just the divine nature. So originally the one nature people were called Monophysites as a kind of insult. Some of them were, some of them weren’t. But the problem is that nobody today outside seminaries knows the word Miaphysite, whereas historians do know the word Monophysite. That’s why I use it. But it’s a litt le bit like saying that left-wing Americans in the 1950s must have been Communists because that’s what their enemies called them. But that’s not what they called themselves. The word Monophysite began as a bit of a curse.

What happened at the Second Council of Ephesus in 429 AD, the so-called “gangster council”?

Jenkins: What happened was this: A council was called to condemn a man who really, seriously was a Monophysite. He really believed in the one nature and he managed to swing the council around to himself. It really turned into a huge victory for the Monophysites against what we would call the Orthodox.

It’s not just the fact of that victory that became such a big deal. It was the way they did it, because the Monophysites, the winning faction, freely trampled all sorts of processes. They used bullying, they used brutality, they used threats, and ultimately a mob of Egyptian-Syrian monks stormed [the place] and beat the patriarch of Constantinople so badly that he died shortly afterward. Even by the standards of the age, that was over-the-top. What that was in practice was a virtual coup in the Christian world by the patriarch of Alexandria, who tried to take over leadership of the Church at that time.

Other than that council, what were some of the more shocking examples of violence that you came across?

Jenkins: One of the things that strikes me about this period is the constant escalation of violence. It’s at the end of the fourth century that the Roman state, not the Church, executes the fi rst heretic. By the time you get to the 440s, people are talking very freely about burning enemies as heretics. And by the time you get to the sixth century, they are trying to persecute in a way that looks very much like the bitt erest persecutions of the Inquisition. They are burning people alive.

There is one spectacular incident where they tried to force the Monophysites in a particular city to see sense by billeting lepers there. The way they used Communion, the Eucharist, was kind of ironic. The idea is that once you have taken the Eucharist, then you are in communion with the Church. So they would take nuns and hold them and force a host, force the Eucharist, down their throats. The idea was that once they had done that, the nuns were then in communion with the Church.

It was in Egypt where it got completely out of control. In Egypt a majority of the population was strongly Monophysite and the government tried to dragoon them into obedience by massacres, persecutions. One of the Monophysite leaders was drowned by a triple immersion, which was meant to echo a baptism. Absolutely nothing that happened in the worst years of the Inquisition was missing from what happened in the 500s and the 600s.

You say that the various parties were wrong to resort to violence, but you also argue that “ancient Christians were exactly right to be so passionate about their causes” because these debates were “critical to the definition of Christianity” today. How so?

Jenkins: I look at different ways that Christianity might have emerged. The Orthodox/Catholic Church did a lot of things wrong but it was fighting for this basic belief in the humanity of Jesus. What might have happened to Christianity had that been lost?

It would have affected the whole ethical basis of later Christianity. The imitation of Christ, the whole idea of “What would Jesus do?”, becomes impossible because if Jesus is just God and not man, then he’s not somebody who can be emulated—he’s just a divine tourist. It affects the whole tradition of Christian art. If the Monophysites had won it is quite likely that any tradition of visual art would have died. You certainly wouldn’t have all these very human images of Jesus.

This is a battle of different regions, apart from anything. The fact that Europe became the center of Christianity was conditioned by the outcome of this conflict. The oldest Christian areas fell into what was called heresy at the time. They lose influence and ultimately they slip away from the empire. The fact that Christianity has the shape it does historically is a direct result of the outcome of the Jesus Wars.

You also write, “ultimately, the fifth-century controversies focused on the issue of atonement, and without that idea, Christianity would have developed quite differently.” How could you have Christianity without atonement?

Jenkins: Think again of what the definition of the nature of Christ is. If Christ is fully divine, who dies on the cross and in what sense is it a real death or a real sacrifice? What the Orthodox fathers, the Orthodox bishops, were claiming was that if we as human beings are to share in that atonement then Christ has to be a being with whom we can identify, who shares our nature. And that means the whole of our human nature. It doesn’t just mean someone who is us in the sense of having human flesh, but us in the sense of having a human soul, a human mind, a human personality. In fact, one of the early fathers has a nice line: if anybody doesn’t believe in the mind of Christ as something that can die, then that believer is without a mind himself. It is preserving the fact that Christ was a fully human being who could represent us human beings in the atonement. This is not just some symbolic thing that happens at a supernatural level.

You recently wrote what turned out to be a trilogy about the future of Christianity. Then you turned to the past. First you wrote about where the Christian faith briefly flourished, then died out; now, the Jesus Wars. is this going to be another trilogy?

Jenkins: Not immediately. My next book is actually going to be on comparing the Bible and the Koran and the violent passages therein. While that has a historical dimension, I don’t think that’s sufficiently closely connected to Jesus or lost history to represent a trilogy. But who knows, down the road? Certainly the amount of material about eastern Christianity is just immense.

You are one of the world’s foremost experts on the subjects of moral panics and priestly pedophilia. What do you think of the current scandals in the European Catholic Church?

Jenkins: Boy, this could turn into a whole other interview. I would emphasize some familiar themes from the United States. One is that I think people misunderstand the reported offenses as suggesting a pervasive problem within the Catholic Church. As yet, no one has ever proved or even tried to prove that the rate of abuse among Catholic clergy is any higher, or lower, than that among members of any other profession. We still have no idea of incidence.

I’d also suggest that, particularly with events in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, it’s important to see a Church reaction in the context of what expert opinion was at the time, something I am less confident in talking about in Europe than I would be in North America. If somebody says, well, the Church should have a much, much higher standard than secular authorities, I’m perfectly prepared to listen to that. But at the moment I’m seeing a lot of accusations surfacing without necessarily suggesting that abuse is a particularly distinctive problem of the Church. I am continuing to observe.