History and theology

What follows are excerpts from Ramsay MacMullen’s book Christianizing the Roman Empire, A.D. 100-400 (Yale, 1984). He begins with historiography pointers relevant to religious history.

My subject here is the growth of the church as seen from the outside, and the period is the one that saw the church become dominant, and Europe Christian. p.vii

My object is history. It might be, but it isn’t, theology. Accordingly, my view focuses naturally upon significance, the quality of weight that distinguishes historical phenomena from the (sometimes much more engrossing or at least more diverting) items of merely human interest that we see in the headlines of certain newspapers: ‘‘Mom Axes Babe” or the like. Significance, in its turn, indicates the degree to which many people, not just a few, are made to live their lives differently in respects that much engage their thoughts, not in respects they do not think about very carefully. … Significance must be compounded of both “many” and “much,” in a sort of multiplicand of the two elements. p.1

This is all elementary. Still, it needs to be said in order to explain the inclusion in my account of scenes not usually given much attention in books about church growth, scenes in which large numbers of persons are brought to a change in their religious allegiance, but namelessly—they are just ordinary folk of no account—and without great dramatic, further consequences in their manner of life. I think these scenes need to be included, along with Saint Augustine and a handful like him, because otherwise we would see only a church all head and no body, a phenomenon that affected only a few lives, a change without mass and therefore without historical significance. And that is the exact opposite of the truth. p.1

The process we are tracing, of the slow but gigantic growth of a community of believers, seems thus to have had at its heart a psycho-logical moment that might have been, though it was not always, quite uncomplicated; and that fact belongs by right, and not by later development, to the whole long process of ecclesiastical maturing. From the very beginning, Jesus’ disciples followed him instantly, without instruction; new adherents, by supernatural actions, were won to instantaneous belief, or trust (πιστις, “commonly mistranslated, ‘Your faith’ …,” with implications of doctrine, as has been pointed out). p.3-4

There is an obvious connection between simplicity of belief and rapidity of conversion: the simpler the set of ideas with their attendant feelings, the shorter must be the period of transition to the new. Which is not to say that much longer, complicated transitions may not also have had their abrupt moments, like Saint Augustine’ in the garden near Milan. The point is worth stressing because the more richly intellectual and dramatically interesting conversions naturally hold our attention best, and are most written about. p.4

It serves as a reminder that we who observe long-distant periods on their own terms, freeing ourselves of theological presuppositions, must be ready to recognize and to treat as religious history an almost unmanageably broad range of psychological phenomena, of which the most historically significant need not have been at all intense or complicated intellectually. p.5

Let me declare
Christian conversion, then, to have been that change of belief by which a person accepted the reality and supreme power of God and determined to obey Him. Whether actual, entire, and doctrinally centrist obedience resulted would depend on cases. It would depend on cases whether the change lay half on the surface and in conduct, or produced an exclusive loyalty, or was warmly or little felt. As we have seen, however, the church itself interpreted the initial process very loosely, without, of course, abandoning the duty to perfect it thereafter. Moreover, as we will come to see in later pages, our definition—a device only of convenience, after all—becomes impossibly inconvenient in any discussion of the post-Constantinian world. p.5

The non-Christian setting of the church, except as it bore directly on church affairs, was ignored in Christian historical accounts ancient and, for that matter, modern. Hostile writings and discarded views were not recopied or passed on, or they were actively suppressed; and, by the overwhelming authority of
Eusebius, the father of church historiography, matters discreditable to the faith were to be consigned to silence. p.6

There is also a second type of distortion to beware of: the anthropologizing. Especially in the last generation, discussions of ancient religions are likely to make use of parallels drawn from scientific studies of still or recently living societies. … but those, too, can be heuristic, nothing more. They certainly supply no reason for saying that ancient conversions “must have been” motivated in such-and-such ways, simply because those are the ways that have been observed in certain living societies. p.7

It is each context in its entirety and uniqueness that must govern any explanation. Within that, whether a historical parallel fits well and therefore supplies likely explanations, cannot be determined from the top down, so to speak, by measurement against abstract suppositions. p.7

But really, nothing is more difficult to control than our sense of what is likely. If we distrust the human sciences and judgments rendered “scientifically,’’ shall we turn instead to our own life’ experiences? Here enters the last source of distortion, which I might term the “generalizing.” p.7

We ourselves naturally suppose, immersed as we are in the Judeo-Christian heritage, that religion means doctrine. Why should we think so? In fact, “that emphasis is most unusual as seen from a cross-cultural perspective.” Among actual alternatives in the early centuries of the era, it is little attested, very little. The opposite, the unchallenged right of anyone to say or do or believe anything he wanted about any deity he addressed, so long as it was not aggressively hostile to other beliefs, is easily shown in a thousand proofs. p.8