Heretics, Pagans and the Christian State
A provoking - and timely - examination of one of the most important moments in Church history.
‘We authorise followers of this law to assume the title of orthodox Christians; but as for the others since, in our judgement, they are foolish madmen, we decree that they shall be branded with the ignominious names of heretics.’ Emperor Theodosius
In AD 381, Theodosius, emperor of the eastern Roman empire, issued a decree in which all his subjects were required to subscribe to a belief in the Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This edict defined Christian orthodoxy and brought to an end a lively and wide-ranging debate about the nature of the Godhead; all other interpretations were now declared heretical. Moreover, for the first time in a thousand years of Greco-Roman civilization free thought was unambiguously suppressed. Not since the attempt of the pharaoh Akhenaten to impose his god Aten on his Egyptian subjects in the fourteenth century BC had there been such a widesweeping programme of religious coercion. Yet surprisingly this political revolution, intended to bring inner cohesion to an empire under threat from the outside, has been airbrushed from the historical record. Instead, it has been claimed that the Christian Church had reached a consensus on the Trinity which was promulgated at the Council of Constantinople in AD 381.
In this groundbreaking new book, acclaimed historian Charles Freeman shows that the council was in fact a shambolic affair, which only took place after Theodosius’ decree had become law. In short, the Church was acquiescing in the overwhelming power of the emperor. Freeman argues that Theodosius’s edict and the subsequent suppression of paganism not only brought an end to the diversity of religious and philosophical beliefs throughout the empire but created numerous theological problems for the Church, which have remained unsolved. The year AD 381, Freeman concludes, marked ‘a turning point which time forgot’.
“Even if theology and ancient history are subjects you avoid, you should not miss this book. It's lucidity and critical challenge are a feast for the mind”
John Carey, Sunday Times