The Rise of Christianity

Catholic philosophy dominated European thought from Augustine in the 5th century to the Renaissance. In the first half of this period philosophy was concerned with providing the theory to support the doctrines of the Catholic Church. In the second half it was concerned with defending the faith and the interests of the Church. According to Russell, the appeal to reason in defence of the Church was perhaps in the long run a mistake. The mood of philosophy was one of deep unhappiness with regards to the affairs of the world, and in that sense little had changed since the Hellenistic period. In the early Christian world this unhappiness was only endurable through hope of a better life in heaven.

From Jewish Sect to Western Empire

Christianity to begin with was preached by Jews to Jews. It was St Paul in particular who opened up this religion to gentiles. Christianity retained the advantages of Judaism (such as the certainty of faith including belief in the kingdom of heaven) but removed the features that were hardest for gentiles to accept. It was also significantly influenced by Greek philosophy, and this can be seen in the example of Origen who was a contemporary of Plotinus and is considered one of the Fathers of the Church. Origen shares Plotinus’ belief in the Holy Trinity, and said that even the stars are living rational beings, to whom God has given souls. He believed that the essential aspects of Christianity (such as God, immortality and free will) can be established through reason, but that we can only truly understand God through reading the Scriptures, which should be believed on faith and not subjected to reason. Origen would later be condemned for several heresies, including the Platonic belief in the pre-existence of souls, and the belief that after resurrection we exist only as ethereal rather than material bodies.

Russell accepts Gibbon’s explanation (from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) for the growth of Christianity prior to Constantine making it the official religion of the Roman Empire. The reasons are firstly the intolerant zeal of the Christians, who were unusual in believing that only they would go to heaven, and that non-Christians were doomed to suffer the worst torments of hell. Second was the belief in the afterlife, although Russell cautions that while this was a popular belief, it was also common through human history and certainly not unique to Christianity. Third was the existence of Christian miracles, which were widely believed. Miracles were again not exclusive to Christianity, but Russell adds that the existence of a sacred book was also important and less common.  Fourth was the pure and austere morals of the Christians, which was admired even by the Roman officials responsible for persecuting them. The final reason is the unity and discipline of the early Christians from a political perspective. In modern times we can still refer to the ‘Catholic vote’ particularly in places like the United States (although it must be said that the idea of Christianity as a unified system of belief in this period is disputed among historians). The Emperor Constantine calculated that he needed their political support more than other groups, who were poorly organised by comparison. Having given the Christians the power of state legitimacy, Constantine then spent the rest of his reign trying to manage factional infighting within Christianity.

The Doctors of the Western Church

Four men are called the Doctors of the Western Church: St Ambrose, St Jerome, St Augustine and Pope Gregory the Great. The first three lived in the 4th century, after the victory of Christianity in the Roman Empire but before the barbarian invasions that ended the Western Empire. Russell writes that they were revered for a 1000 years, and between them fixed the mould into which the Church was shaped. For now I will focus on St Ambrose, who determined the relationship between Church and State, and St Jerome, who translated the bible into Latin and was a driving force behind monasticism. St Ambrose gave up a promising career as a regional governor to become bishop of Milan, giving all his possessions away to the poor at the same time. In his letters to the Western Roman Emperors he speaks as an equal and sometimes as a superior, always happy to admonish them when they fell short of their duty. He won several high profile victories against the Emperor, and in the process established the idea that there were matters in which State must yield to the Church. While the people owe service to their Emperor, so the Emperor owes service to God. God instructs us how to live, and only the Church can interpret the will of God. The Church can (as St Ambrose did) declare an Emperor’s actions to be sinful and demand penitence. While material possessions held privately by any individual (including bishop) are ultimately the possessions of the Emperor, any possessions owned collectively by the Church are ultimately owned by God rather than the Emperor.

After receiving a good education in Rome, St Jerome became an ascetic and spent five years as a hermit in Syria. Wherever he went after that he preached the virtues of the ascetic life. St Jerome is most famous for creating the Vulgate – the Latin translation of the Bible directly from the Hebrew original, which would become the official Catholic version. Prior to that the Greek Septuagint had been the official version, but had differed significantly from the Hebrew original. Despite writing at length about the woes of the Roman Empire, his thoughts never seem to turn towards practical political solutions, and the same can be said of St Ambrose and St Augustine.

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