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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Review: "Christianity" (Jonathan Hill)

TITLE: Christianity: How a Despised Sect from a Minority Religion Came to Dominate the Roman Empire
AUTHOR: Jonathan Hill
PUBLISHER: Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2011, (256 pages).

This is a brief survey of the early Church and the beginnings of Christianity during the first 400 years. Part One summarizes concisely the life of Jesus and His disciples, and how the early Christians spread the gospel at the risk and payment of their own lives. Setting the first century in the context of the Jewish culture, it tells us that the early believers begin victorious in faith, and die bravely in martyrdom. Each persecution leads to a bigger charge of faith. From the first apostles in the rural areas, to Paul and the Galileans in big cities, the Christian faith means everything to these believers to the point that they are willing to give up their lives for the preservation and dissemination of the good news of Jesus. Through oral traditions, through the written word, and through their living testimonies, external threats fail to diminish the movement.

The next 2 centuries (Part Two and Three) deal with a bigger threat: Inner dissensions and false teachings. Here, the author gives readers an insight into the troubled relationships inside the churches, their conflicts between Christian and Jewishness, roles of men and women, the infiltration of worldliness in the church, and the writing of John's Revelation to encourage the Church to look forward to hope in the midst of a difficult time during the Roman era. The internal threats are many: Sexual immorality, theological errors, disunity within the church, and many other petty quarrels that lead to divisions. This period also sees the bright sides of the faith. From this era we have many brilliant theologians and philosophers who fight boldly for the truth, preach Christ passionately, and are unwavering in their convictions. Much of modern philosophy owes its beginnings to philosophers like Origen, Plato, Socrates, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian of Carthage, etc. The third century ends with perhaps the highest and most intense phase of persecutions ever known in the history of the Church.

This brings us to the final part. It begins with the fourth century, most notably with the Edict of Milan in AD323. Here, the threats have turned into inner complacency and corruption. With official sanctioning of Christianity as the official religion of Rome, troubles begin almost immediately. The sudden increase in size raises the question of how 'Christian' are believers. Hill describes the predicament as follows:

"Just how 'Christian' were these new congregations? It is easy to imagine that many might have joined the religion because they thought it politically or socially expedient, or simply because it was fashionable." (178)

Then comes the monastic era which essentially saves not just the Christian Church, but the entire civilization of Europe.

Closing Thoughts

The title of this book is a little misleading. The subtitle clarifies it a little more, but does not go far enough. I believe a more accurate title will do better justice to this very good survey of the first 400 years. That aside, this book is brilliant for its clarity and focus on what it means to be a Christian throughout the different eras. We can all learn something from each era. From the Early Church, we learn that the Christian faith has not come to us cheap. It costs our predecessors their lives. The Synoptic Gospels also reveal to us about the gospels written to believers who have an 'impoverished lifestyle' (40). (Contrast that to modern prosperity gospel thinking.)  The Roman Edict of Milan tells us that political recognition does not mean a better image for Christianity. It brings along more confusion about what true Christianity is all about. It also tells us that external threats are not the only dangers to the Church. The internal threats need to be constantly met by theological defenses, resilient morality, and spiritual unity. These threats are still present today.

I commend this book especially to anyone new to Church history. Who says history is boring? Definitely not when you read this book.

Rating: 4.5


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