381 A.D. Heretics, Pagans, and The Dawn of the Monotheistic State

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381 A.D. Heretics, Pagans, and The Dawn of the Monotheistic State is a book authored by Charles Freeman This books is a follow-up to Charles Freemans’s previous book about the same period, The Closing of the Western Mind. He marks several turning points in European history, primarily the Roman laws concerning Christianity enacted in 381 A.D.

Prior to Emperor Constantine, there was no central control of the Bishops. There were a variety of beliefs among them. Constantine wanted peace in his kingdom. In 311, along with Galerius and Licinius, the persecution of Christianity was ended, then made legal in 313. These were the last laws for religious toleration in Europe for over a thousand years. In 325 Constantine called together the Bishops to resolve their differences. Many issues remained unresolved but this involvement of the Emperor with theological matters set a precedent.

After his death, Constantine’s sons fought for power and continued to call together Bishops. They supported some of their theology, primarily the Arians. This could mean simply getting funding for expansion or not. It was also a period with a high level of religious violence1. When Theodosius Icame to power in 379, he made orthodox Nicaean Christianity the official state church of the Roman Empire.

He enforced this new form of Christianity by ordering the destruction of holy sites and allowing attacks on temples. It is unknown how much literature and art was lost during his reign. The many ideas of what “God” might be were no longer discussed. According to Freeman, “These alternatives were now being erased or subsumed into a composite ‘Christian’ God embedded in the Nicaea formula. (p 103)

At the same time, theologically, it was Augustine who brought back the Pauline ideas of the wrath of God and inadequacy of human efforts to gain favor with God due to original sin. He made Paul’s focus on the second coming and the urgency of preparing for Christ’s return central to the theology of Western Europe. He also wrote De Trinitate in support of the Nicene concepts. In it he admits that it is not possible to completely explain the trinity, that it is a mystery. But he does not encourage further examination of that mystery. In The Confessions, he casts doubt on reason itself, undoing centuries of Greek philosophical thought. He says, “There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity…”

Over the next few centuries, the power of Rome diminished in the West. The Bishoprics could keep the countryside organized so Kings allied with them but there were very few schools or social support systems. Population and technology declined and books rotted away. There was little critical theology during this time. The Church lacked central authority, so there was no punishing of heretics either. With so few manuscripts available and so little scholarship passed down, the political fighting that occurred around the earlier Councils was ignored and history was rewritten to say the Church Fathers had accurately discerned the mind of God.

By the end of the first millennium, trade was increasing and with it power struggles. The First Crusade began in 1096 and they continued against not only non-Christians but non-Catholic Christians. The definition of Christianity from the 4th century was enforced as the only definition. In the 12th century The Inquisitions enforced that definition.

As the writings of Greek philosophy slowly made their way back to European universities, The Roman Catholic Church had to battle with reason again. This battle culminated in the Protestant Reformation and The Thirty Years war which ended in 1648. Europeans, in the words of Jonathan Israel, “had to accept that the Almighty, for whatever reason, refuses to signal which church teaches the true faith…”

The peace treaties included provisions for nations that could choose their own official religion and laws allowing people to practice the religion of their choice. The Pope, Innocent X, declared the Peace Treaty of Westphalia “null and void”. His power to do anything about it however had been taken away.