Our Supersubstantial Bread

Frank Kermode

  • A History of Christianity: The First 3000 Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch
    Allen Lane, 1161 pp, £35.00, September 2009, ISBN 978 0 7139 9869 6

Eamon Duffy, whose opinion of this book will not be lightly disputed, remarks on its jacket that ‘everyone who reads it will learn things they didn’t know.’ Most lay reviewers will think this an understatement; yet the scope of the project, its distance from anything that might be described as parochial, may persuade them that the records of Christianity, preserved and interpreted for the most part by assiduous priests and scholars, deserve a few moments of their attention. Consider, as one instance among a thousand (I’ll come back to them), the decisions or ‘Definitions’ of the ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451 CE). Even if we have never heard of them they are valid today. And the words of St Augustine, issuing eloquently from North Africa in the fourth and fifth centuries, would be debated as matters of life and death more than a thousand years later in Calvin’s Geneva and in the American colonies – even in some modern Nonconformist churches.

We may envy a tradition so firmly established, though cruelty and fanaticism seemed inevitable adjuncts of theological certitude. It is well known that this history contains many instances of virtue and sanctity, enough perhaps to rival or outdo those of folly and wickedness. Both belong equally to the record. The material documenting these achievements and delinquencies is presented to the historian as an enormous quarry of data inviting further refinement. Few readers will underestimate the achievement of a historian who is willing to take on what he himself calls a ‘risibly ambitious project’ and, with every appearance of pleasure, control a narrative that runs from ‘Greece and Rome (c.1000 BCE-100 CE)’ to ‘Culture Wars (1960-Present)’, dealing generously with the bewildering profusion of enthusiastic and schismatic variations on the 2000-year ground bass of Christianity.

The ‘3000 years’ of the book’s subtitle begin, then, in the ancient world, with Greece and Rome, the latter being the dominant world power at the time of the birth of Jesus. It has not escaped Christian notice that the coming together of the birth of Jesus and the reign of Augustus, the first emperor, might have been divinely arranged: that Augustus was inspired to ensure a peaceful pause in imperial history in order to accommodate the tranquil arrival of Jesus into a world supposed to have been, for a moment, free of imperial wars. Such was the Augustan peace. Later, over the centuries, there would be more collaborations, less mythical, between faith and empire, as in the reigns of Constantine and Charlemagne.

The languages that recorded these coincidences were Greek and Latin. But the world into which Jesus was born was polyglot; the Jews who were the first Christians mostly spoke Aramaic, as Jesus did, though in Alexandria, which had a large Jewish population, their language was Greek, and so was their Bible; and the language of early Christianity was Greek also. Variant styles of religion soon developed. The Jerusalem variety, which was controlled by a brother of Jesus, remained in many ways close to Judaism, while the energetic Paul opened up the new religion to Gentiles, even if they failed to practise circumcision and observe dietary laws. The Greek of these Jews was what modern scholars, at ease with Plato and Sophocles, loftily call ‘marketplace’ Greek. It was quite unlike Aramaic, a Semitic dialect, and unlike Latin, the language of the Roman oppressor, though Paul used Latin to obtain release from prison. Like Cicero, he was a Roman citizen.

Such is the exciting blend of cultures, languages and religions dealt with in the early pages of this book. A thousand pages later, as it reaches a temporary halt, MacCulloch is equably discussing some of the very latest things in religion, and recording the almost incredible success not only of Roman Catholicism but of a great diversity of lesser churches and sects. As nearly always, he explains these diversities patiently, if not always with complete approval. He seems to feel less than his usual warmth about the Jesuits, and he writes with special keenness about what might be called the ‘plot’ of Vatican II: the return to Rome of Giovanni Battista Montini, an agent of change; the arrival there in 1962 of 2000 bishops, only half of whom were European; the reluctant appointment of a Vatican press officer, ‘although, with a disdainful symbolism, he was not actually given anywhere to sit during his attendance at the council’s proceedings.’

MacCulloch’s purpose in describing such scenes and explaining their complicated theological consequences is to ‘seek out what I see as the good in the varied forms of the Christian faith, while pointing clearly to what I think is foolish and dangerous in them’. His book is meant to be useful, and it meets this promise everywhere. Its critical apparatus is as admirable as its general scope. The annotation is surprisingly up to date (notes can easily fall out of date during the writing of a 1000-page book). There is a decent index, which might well have been more elaborate. MacCulloch is fond of the word ‘structure’, and an interest in structure is evident in the clean lines and elegant connections of his arguments. On some matters he seems even more enthusiastically well informed than on others – on church music, for instance, and church architecture – but he speaks on all subjects with learned and affable authority.

Though he does not regret the Anglicanism of his formative years, and indeed recalls it with affection, MacCulloch thinks it necessary on the present occasion to state that he no longer gives it his assent; he will no longer say that Christianity – ‘or indeed any religious belief’ – is ‘true’. Instead, he offers himself as ‘a candid friend of Christianity’, by profession a historian with a special interest in the religious tumults and contentions of the 16th century in Europe. Already celebrated as a historian of that epoch, MacCulloch has had much practice in recording its doctrinal disputes, but also the sometimes closely related horrors of religious persecution, the massacres, the torture, the recourse by almost all parties to the burning of opponents.

How could Calvin, whose studies in Christian doctrine had, and continue to have, such enduring influence, be so preoccupied with the problem of whether or not to burn Servetus, a rival theologian, or just mercifully behead him? ‘Inexplicable thy justice seems,’ Milton’s Adam complained, and so it must have seemed to many who ventured into what might seem disinterested debate, only to be censured, exiled, tortured and burned alive. We may be amazed by the apparent insignificance of points at deadly issue, but any theologian before the advent of modernism would probably have thought the blame should rest with us, with our failure to see what was genuinely important; and of course the ability to do so is connected with the felt need to eliminate obtuse or defiant opponents.

MacCulloch does not fail to deplore the cruelties of his story: not only the sadism of the burnings but, in the long course of history, fraud and simony on an almost inconceivably grand scale. They belong to the story he is telling and must be spoken of there, however little the historian enjoys them. And inevitably there are other occasions when history is troubling to the historian: for example, when his professional scepticism clashes with strongly held beliefs on the part of characters in his story. The story of the Resurrection provides such a moment.

MacCulloch has been discussing the Passion narratives, which, as he says, differ from the Nativity stories in Matthew and Luke in that they contain improbable occurrences yet ‘feel like real events’. The tale is of a betrayal; as well as the Roman and Jewish officials, a named individual is accused of it. It may be thought that the historian’s job is clearly to recount and explain these human acts, not to endorse claims to the truth of whatever it was those agents may themselves have believed, for example about the existence of God or the raising of Lazarus or the posthumous appearances of Jesus, or anything else in the narrative. The historian knows well enough that the Resurrection was or is the very centre of Christian belief; but is not required to do more than report it, and report that the characters in the story responded to it as they did, if they did, by believing it. For them these were real or true events, though not real or true in any ordinary sense. In his youth MacCulloch had been able to accept their truth without question. Now he is not.

If the life story of Jesus had ended with the Crucifixion, MacCulloch writes, he might still have had a place in history, perhaps as a martyr in the Jewish cause; but not as the founder of a religion. For that there had to be the Resurrection. The post-Resurrection events were uncanny (persons vanishing through solid doors, the behaviour of Thomas and so on), but whoever originally told these stories believed them in quite a different sense from the way their authors believed the infancy stories, or the way they strike a modern historian.

What must be his reaction when he contemplates the Resurrection in its place at the heart of Christianity and compares with it the idea as it emerges from his enlightened but restricted perception of it? How will his account of it affect his own beliefs? ‘This Resurrection,’ MacCulloch says, ‘is not a matter which historians can authenticate; it is a different sort of truth, or statement about truth. It is the most troubling, difficult affirmation in Christianity, but over 20 centuries Christians have thought it central to their faith. Easter is the earliest Christian festival, and it was for its celebration that the Passion narratives were created by the first Christians.’ This enormous book, which attends so elegantly and so seriously to so many arguments concerning Christian truth, has no more to say about this central dispute, though it cannot have been far from MacCulloch’s thoughts as he pondered the relations between truth and statements about truth.

The other day I came across a long forgotten interview I did with Graham Greene in 1963. Speaking of The End of the Affair, he said that he had made ‘an appalling mistake’ in that novel, and the mistake was ‘the introduction of something which had not got a natural explanation’. He found it impossible to carry on with the original scheme of the novel when its principal figure was dead and his invented events were obeying a fictional logic not of his but of God’s devising. It was as if the woman and her lover belonged to different orders of truth. Greene believed in God as a plotter; but he could not reconcile God’s and the human plot. It was, perhaps, like trying to reconcile truth and statements of truth.

The Resurrection is far from being the only theological stumbling block or scandal encountered in this history. It is a book full of conflicts which have, over the millennia, shaped the thinking and sometimes the conduct of the priestly classes; they require of the historian that he report them correctly and credibly. The Jesus of the gospels is intelligible as a man; he is carefully described, even to his manner of speaking; he is recognisable as a preacher who, like many of his contemporaries, was preoccupied with the imminence of apocalypse; humanity was living in the end-time. Among these early Christians, and indeed to a remarkable extent throughout the Christian era, religious thought was ‘end-directed’: apocalypse would come like a thief in the night. This is a point made repeatedly: the end being nigh, there were many worldly matters it would be a waste of time to attend to. The historian will describe beliefs of that kind without being end-directed himself.

Sometimes the language of the end-directed can be baffling. What, in the Lord’s Prayer, is meant by ‘our daily bread’? The expression has been muttered by millions since the very beginning of Christianity; it seems clear enough, but in fact it isn’t. The Greek word epiousios, translated as ‘daily’, does not mean ‘daily’. It is a rare word and the sense is obscure; the most likely learned guess seems to be that it refers to a special bread that will be needed the next day if in the meantime the kingdom should happen to come overnight and the faithful be hungry. Without some explanation from a learned expositor the poor must have thought it was just an odd way of referring to daily food, and they have probably gone on thinking so, with some reason. The Vulgate – the Catholic Bible – offers the plausible supersubstantialis for epiousios, and the Geneva Bible glosses it thus: ‘such as is sufficient for this day’. On balance the Vulgate is probably nearer the mark, but, as MacCulloch argues, ‘“give us this day our supersubstantial bread” never caught on as a popular phrase in prayer.’ Jesus, addressing God, says Abba instead of ‘Father’. This way of addressing God is apparently unknown in Jewish tradition; the Aramaic word Abba, MacCulloch writes, means something more like ‘dad’ than ‘father’. The followers of Jesus are told to use the normal Greek word for ‘father’ (pater). Is there a reason for this? The learned must always behave as if there were.

It is impossible to give a clear notion of the virtues of a book so encyclopedic in its account of the relevant history, geography, art and philosophy of its subject. Matters that greatly interest the tireless MacCulloch – from the architecture of Hagia Sophia to the Lithuanian Reformation, from Wesley’s ministry to that of Pat Robertson, from the Great Schism to the Great Awakenings, from Pentecostalism in South Korea to Lyndon Johnson’s support of Martin Luther King – must be neglected. Instead I take a hint from MacCulloch’s defence of the interest to be taken in theological argument: ‘No history of Christianity which tries to sidle past its theological disputes will make sense.’

It is possible to argue that manifold and fine-drawn as they were, the major controversies and decisions originated in the huge and controvertible claim that Christ is both God and man. The author who willingly recounts the great historical events, from the Babylonian captivity on, must not sidle past dozens of arcane but disputatious Greek theological formulas. Happily, MacCulloch seems to enjoy this microscopic Greek theology as much as the great battles, the movements of peoples, the great schisms, the rise of Islam. He relates, as historians do, the folly of great leaders, the relations between political power and religious faith, Constantine’s decisive conversion, the large imperial achievements of Justinian and Charlemagne. The mysterious evolution of papal power is another important part of his subject. But so is what may sometimes seem to us the barren quibbling of theologians.

For a rough idea of this material it might be helpful to attend for a moment to the work of one council of bishops, accounted the fourth, and held at Chalcedon, near Constantinople, in 451. More than 500 bishops, summoned by the emperor in Constantinople, turned up with the intention of settling certain disputed points of doctrine which already had a history; they were mostly devoted to differences concerning such matters as the relation of Christ’s humanity to his divinity, and of the Son to the Father. Chalcedon was meant to deal with the Eutychean heresy, which maintained that the incarnate Christ had but one nature (this was called Monophysitism) as against the Orthodox doctrine, which was Dyophysite. Monophysitism had many exotic variants, including Theopaschitism (literally ‘those who held that God had suffered’ on the cross). Gibbon’s remark on ‘the happy flexibility’ of the Greek tongue comes to mind.

Chalcedon condemned Eutyches and issued a statement of faith called the Chalcedonian Definition. It claimed that Christ was ‘perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly god and truly man, of a rational soul and a body; consubstantial with the Father as regards his divinity, and the same consubstantial with us as regards his humanity’. This Definition was accepted by most though not all the churches; it left a legacy of bitterness, especially in the East. Some describe it as ‘an important moment in the consolidation of Christian doctrine’. It was a compromise, but not enough of a compromise: the Nestorians needed to maintain that the two natures remained distinct despite the Definition. It is easy to imagine the difficulty of disputes about the Trinity, when the relations of three Persons had to be defined and reconciled. But here the authority of St Augustine, reinforced seven centuries later by that of St Thomas Aquinas, prevailed.

In the wake of Chalcedon there developed a tremendous row about theotokos (Greek for ‘the bearer of God’), an important title of honour for the Virgin in the West, but with implications for the eternality of the Son – a doctrine the Nestorians did not accept. This quarrel is remembered because of the subtlety of the Greek distinction between homoousios (‘of one substance’) and homoiousios (‘of similar substance’).

MacCulloch suggests that the passion for detail and definition, and the need to dispute over a single iota, reflect the dependence of the laity on exact liturgical performance. I have said very little about some of the arguments he considers; his book studies in some depth the complexities of the Reformation, and the flourishing, thus far, of the modernism that it was one purpose of Vatican I to suppress. He watches them like a candid friend, without zeal to destroy. At the end of Decline and Fall, Paul Pennyfeather, now a divinity student, having said goodnight to a drunken survivor of his life in the fast lane, settles down in his Oxford room to read. ‘So the ascetic Ebionites used to turn towards Jerusalem when they prayed. Paul made a note of it. Quite right to suppress them.’ MacCulloch says little or nothing about the Ebionites, presumably because there was little to say. But he wouldn’t have suppressed them; instead, he would have asked, in his gentle way, why they turned towards Jerusalem. It seems they were vegetarian and denied the divinity of Christ, but Paul Pennyfeather isn’t concerned with the graver liturgical heresies.