Church history is somewhat depressing.
I've been reading a lot of books on the history of doctrine lately. Or, more precisely, the sections of them that deal with soteriological doctrines from the Apostolic Fathers to Augustine. I've finished going through the three shelves of them at the university library, so I'll have to find another library I suppose.
What I am finding depressing is the post-Nicene period when Christianity was the state religion. The amount of corruption, church-politics, and imperial interference in the church and its doctrine at that time is simply dumbfounding. The reasons for which decisions were made varied from bad to worse. In fact I would simply go so far as to make the blanket statement that all decisions and decrees made within the church during the imperial period are not worthy of being used for toilet paper. The whole thing was one great moronic political circus.
One historian I was reading today aptly commented: "the thinkers church historians write about are neither as logical, as truthful or as edifying in their morals as the devout usually expect." (Linonel Wickham pg 211 in The Making of Orthodoxy 1989 Ed. Rowan Williams) Another comments "There is no doubt that we would be repelled in the twentieth century should church leaders, professing to follow and practice the truths of Christ, were to use such methods [as were used by Cyril of Alexandria]" (Gordon Harper pg 88 in The Heritage of Christian Thought 1979)
Time after time it was the side that is willing to go the furthest, play politics, manipulate others, bribe the right people, who won. It was virtually never about careful reasoning or informed discussion, but about power and politics. Time and again the arbitrary decrees of the Emperors were the turning point, and whichever side could control the Emperors' decisions won the game.
It is disappointing to me to read of those who called themselves Christians acting like they did. But it is far worse to realize that their decisions which they made affected Christian doctrine and have affected many Christians to this day - although protestants have since escaped from a lot of that legacy.
In case anyone is curious, the people who I am particular pissed off at are:
- Cyril of Alexandria, uber-super-unmatched-bastard
- Augustine, arch-heretic and doctrinal-innovator extraordinaire
- Bishops of Rome, dumbasses with super-delusions of grandeur
- Athanasius, all-round bastard
- Church Councils, morons with power
- Emperors, interfering morons with supreme power
People who come out smelling of roses (perhaps somewhat tarnished by the manure they were living amongst):
- St Pelagius, defender of orthodoxy
- St Nestorius, suppressor of the cult of Mary
On a slightly different note, something that surprises me somewhat when I consider it, is that informed scholarly opinion is so unanimous on these issues (eg Augustine being a heretical innovator and Pelagius defending previous orthodoxy against Augustine's innovations) and yet this has so completely not filtered through to people in the church. The books sit there in the library, and yet walking into a church and telling people you agree with Pelagius is likely to have those that have heard of Pelagianism upset at your 'heresy' instead of happy at your orthodoxy. It seems that scholars of the history of doctrine can write books that sit on the shelves all they like and that the beliefs of people in the church will simply carry on the way they did before. It's a funny world.