At the conference/book promo I attended recently, Phyllis Tickle told those assembled that a desire to return to a pre-Constantine faith is a hallmark of Emergence Christianity. However, during his PechaKucha presentation, Barry Taylor said we will never be able to recapture pre-Constantine Christianity because we have no idea what it looked like. The first statement was nothing new to me, as I’ve spent a good deal of time searching for ways to get back to what Christianity was in its earliest formation. I think this is a common thread among emergents (and, yes, I consider myself an emergent) because we (well, I) believe the church has corrupted the teachings of Jesus and turned a way of grace into the rule of law. The second was a bit disturbing, causing me to question my desire to find those earliest teachings and follow them. Taylor’s comment had the ring of truth because he’s right: we really don’t have an idea what the faith looked like in those early days. Understanding why (and understanding how we got where we are today) requires a look at history.
For many years, Christians had a rough go of it in the Roman Empire. The worst (certainly the most well-known) persecutions occurred under Nero, who instituted such ghastly practices as wrapping Christians in animal skins and having them torn apart by wild dogs, setting them on fire to provide street lights after dark and that old standby, crucifixion. But, Nero wasn’t the only emperor to persecute Christians; almost every Caesar following him afflicted believers in some way, culminating with Diocletian and Galerius. Early in the third century, Constantine I came to power and, in 313 CE, legalized the practice of Christianity with the Edict of Milan. Now, we’ve been led to believe by the church that he did this because he was, himself, a Christian, but that is not the case. While his mother Helena was, Constantine only embraced Christianity just before his death. No, Constantine’s Christianity was of a more political nature. He had inherited an empire that was beginning to fall apart and, in an effort to bolster it, turned to religion. In those days, Roman culture was marked by a vast number of beliefs and Constantine, a consummate politician, realized that nothing bonded people like a shared faith. So, he looked at all the available options and chose Christianity as the one most likely to bring unity. However, Christians themselves were a fractious lot and had more than a few competing ideas flying around. This wouldn’t do, so Constantine convened the Council of Nicea and told the assembled churchmen to come to a consensus on what Christianity was going to be. He already knew how he wanted it to go and when the Emperor says “I like this”, smart people say “So do I!” Shortly after Nicea, Constantine decided the faith needed a book to go along with it. Just as with Christianity itself, there were multiple collections of the books, gospels and letters relating to the faith. Constantine looked at what was available and chose the one best suited to his aims. Again, when the emperor says “I like this”, smart people said “So do I!” After the establishment of the Canon, any other books were ruthlessly suppressed and only came to light through archaeological discoveries such Nag Hammadi and Qumran. We are left with fleeting references, conjecture, and a short instruction manual, called the Didache. I suppose the letters of Paul should also be included in this, but we must remember they were written to specific communities to address situations peculiar to the individual groups. The Didache, along with the Acts 2 passage, is one of the few glimpses into early Christianity we have available at this time. As you can see, a historically accurate picture of pre-Constantine Christianity is a problem.
So, if Barry is right and we can’t return to that early version of our faith because a reliable view of it isn’t available, does that mean that we shouldn’t attempt it? Not at all. There is a common saying that “You can’t go home again” (based on Tom Wolfe’s book “You Can’t Go Home Again”), meaning that once you leave the narrow confines of your youth, attempting to go back to them doesn’t work. We may not be able to go home again, but in the effort we might just find something new, something more than those “narrow confines” of our youth. Whether that something new is better remains to be seen.