Today we continue our reflections on The Subversion of Christianity by Jacques Ellul (trans. Geoffrey Bromiley; Eerdmans, 1986). We also continue to learn from the experience of the early Church. Beginning in the 200s, and fully by the 300s, the Church suffered permanent subversion through Olympian success. It became quantitatively Olympian and lost its qualitatively Christian character.
This had consequences. A “crushing Christian triumphalism developed. Christians took over pagan temples and turned them into churches [i.e. church buildings], also confiscating their endowments” (39). Strangely enough, most of the Olympians accustomed to worshiping at these temples likely continued to do so. Little obvious difference remained between the one true god and the six conventional gods that they were used to worshiping.
“Christianity also made its way by force” (39). In the city of Rome, for example, statues of Olympian saints were replaced by those of Christian heroes.
Not only were Olympian places Christianized. Christian practices were also Olympianized. “The apostles and prophets became priests in the most sociologically religious sense of the term, that is, successors of the pontiffs…” (39). “And the appalling adoption of the term sovereign pontiff marks the juncture at which the clergy begins to follow directly the pagan priesthood” (39 note 11).
All this led to a new development. Christianity became the civilizational worldview of the Roman world. In other words, it became the worldview which gave shape to Roman society, culture, and personalities for centuries to come.
It proved to be quite a useful one. Traditional Olympianity had, by that time, become decadent. This new Christian Olympianity gave the Roman empire—society, culture, and people—the greater vitality that comes from a fresh sense of purpose. “Christianity thus became the most solid buttress of the Roman world, and it was not at all abnormal that its main centers were in the capital cities of the empire” (40).
Problem? Christians stopped being faithful witnesses to Jesus Christ. The Church “ceased to be an explosive ferment calling everything into question in the name of the truth that is in Jesus Christ” (39).
A related problem? The explosiveness of the Holy Spirit remained. Steps had to be taken to contain it. The whole population had to be Christian Olympian. Then their beliefs and behavior had to be controlled to prevent any renewed faithful witness. Jesus could not be allowed to challenge the whole worldview and civilization based on it.
Controlling the lower classes was simple enough. It required only the enforcement of conformity to a moral code. People could even break that code so long as they didn’t question its legitimacy. “We can thus understand why importance was increasingly given to...auricular confession, then to a codification of morality, to faults and penalties (as in the Irish Penitentials of the sixth century…)” (40).
What then followed was “the intellectual construction of an identity between Christian morality and natural morality” (41).
Copyright © 2015 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.