Charles Freeman: Says Christianity made the West close-minded

Historians in the News

Charles Freeman’s 2003 book The Closing of the Western Mind upset Christian theologians. So will this one. As before, he argues that the coming of Christianity terminated the tradition of free, tolerant debate that had prevailed in the classical world, replacing it with irrational dogma, enforced by savage persecution, that obstructed the advance of western thought for centuries. But his new book has a sharper focus, selecting as a defining moment the year AD381 when Theodosius, emperor of the eastern Roman empire, required all his subjects to believe in a trinity, in which Father, Son and Holy Spirit were of equal majesty.

As Freeman explains, the problem of the relations between the members of the Godhead stemmed from the decision of the early church to adopt the old testament as part of Christian scripture. The cruel and vengeful God of the old testament was so obviously different from the Jesus of the gospels that it seemed impossible to many early Christians that they could be the same person. The belief that Jesus was separate from and subordinate to the Father became popular, and was supported by appeal to Jesus’s own sayings in the gospels. However, in AD325 the Council of Nicea decreed that Father and Son were of “one substance”, that each had existed from all eternity, and that there was no question of the Son being subordinate. It was this decision that Theodosius endorsed.

For many believers, it raised difficulties. The word “substance” suggested some kind of physical material, which seemed inappropriate for God. Further, if Jesus was the same substance as the Father, how had he become a distinct person? When had they split up? Again, the Nicene Creed states that Jesus is the Father’s “only-begotten” Son. But if he is co-eternal with the Father, when was he begotten? Is it possible for any being to be begotten, yet to have existed always? To modern rationalists these questions bear as much relation to reality as Jack and the Beanstalk, and the spectacle of theologians exercising their minds over them can only be ridiculous. But Freeman is far from being guilty of such disrespect. He deplores Dawkins-style God-bashing, and appreciates the importance these matters had, and still have, for Christians. As he points out, many Christians questioned whether, if Jesus was the same substance as God, he could experience suffering. It was generally accepted that God could not. But if Jesus could not suffer, his passion and crucifixion seemed empty pretence. On the other hand, if he could suffer it seemed he was a lesser divinity than God....
Read entire article at Times (UK)

comments powered by Disqus