A Different Kind of Religious War

March 24, 2010

New book Jesus Wars by Baylor historian explores how world view of Jesus Christ was shaped

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"Who do you say that I am?" asked Jesus of his disciples. And the rest of humankind has been struggling to answer that question ever since.

Nowhere has answering this question been more divisive and more of a struggle than in resolving the tension between two seemingly rival claims: Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, and Jesus was only fully divine. This schism was central to Christianity during the Church Councils of the fifth century, when it seemed inevitable that the church would abandon its belief in the humanity of Jesus.

It also is a schism that led directly to the collapse of Roman power in the east, to the rise of Islam, to the destruction of Christianity throughout much of Asia and Africa, and to the strengthening of Christianity in Europe. The mainstream Christian church kept the belief that Jesus was fully human - but at the cost of losing half the world.

This battle to "keep" Jesus human is recounted in Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years, written by Philip Jenkins and published this month by HarperOne. Jenkins, a religious historian with joint appointments at Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion and Penn State University, explores the violent and bloody controversy that erupted between the Western and Eastern churches. These battles, says Jenkins, had enormous impact on the future of Christianity and the world.

It was the Council of Chalcedon, near Istanbul in 451, that seemingly settled the matter, formulating the statement that eventually became the official theology of the Roman Empire. This acknowledged Christ in two natures, joined together in one person. This Chalcedonian definition stands today as the official view of Jesus for the vast majority of Christians.

"During the fifth century there were two sides, both of which thought Christ was God," Jenkins says. "What varied was the idea of how much humanity he held. The view that won and became orthodoxy was the view that Christ was both fully human and fully divine. The view that lost was the 'One Nature' view - the idea of Christ in which the human nature was wholly overwhelmed by divinity.

"But Chalcedon was not the only possible solution, nor was it an obvious or, perhaps, a logical one," Jenkins writes. "Only the political victory of Chalcedon's supporters allowed that council's ideas to become the inevitable lens through which later generations interpret the Christian message."

And, the "official victory of Chalcedon," as Jenkins terms it, came with a cost. Violence, bloodshed and death occurred, driven both by the quest for the "right belief" and the secular concept of honor prevailing at the time, which fostered vendettas and feuds. People of the fifth century had no qualms in justifying violence to support their view of the Christ they worshipped.

The struggles recounted in Jesus Wars remind us today that beliefs form and reappear throughout time - and must be engaged and confronted. While the violence prevalent then is abhorrent in today's world, the church must still explore new ideas - or risk extinction.

Writing in Jesus Wars, Jenkins says, "...dialogue can itself be a positive thing, a way in which Christian thought develops its own self-understanding. A religion that is not constantly spawning alternatives and heresies has ceased to think and has achieved only the peace of the grave."

About Philip Jenkins
Dr. Philip Jenkins, one of the world's leading religion scholars, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion, a position he has held since 2009. He is also is the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Humanities at Pennsylvania State University, where he has taught since 1980. An historian by training, Jenkins' work has been lauded in many different disciplines including sociology, criminology, and religious studies. Jenkins earned his bachelor's, master's and Ph.D. in History from Cambridge University. He is the author of 24 books, more than 100 book reviews and approximately 100 book chapters and refereed articles.

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