This isn’t a book for the lay reader. If you’re looking for a thriller filled with blood and gore, with schemes and machinations galore, this isn’t the book for you.
What it is, instead, is a very deep, very erudite, very skilful dissection of the internal politics of the Christian world as it came to terms with its own pre-eminence. It is a study of the factionalism, the inter-personal rivalry, the theological conflicts and the bitter schisms that afflicted the Christian church in a most crucial period in its history – Rome lay dying, pagan barbarians engulfed entire provinces and Islam was waiting in the wings, just a little way ahead in the future.
The issues described are complex, the twists and turns frequent and the minutiae involved very intricate and finely nuanced. You would be well advised to bookmark page 69 (appendix to chapter 2) and page 279 (appendix); you’ll find yourself constantly referring back to these pages to remind yourself of who was who and who believed what and what that belief entailed. Miaphysite, Monophysite, Nestorian? This was a world where whether you believed in homoousios or homoiousios could mean the difference between life and death.Make no mistake, this book demands time and patience.
What you get in return is a very good idea of how Christians sought to, and decided to answer a question that is at the heart of their faith, the very basic question, “Who was Christ?”
This deceptively simple question was what brought people into the streets, armed for war; it turned monks into club wielding thug, it brought Primates of the church to ignominious deaths and emperors on their knees before hermits. It got the greatest centres of the Christian faith, from Rome to Antioch to Alexandria embroiled in a generational war for supremacy that spared no one, from the humblest preachers to the rulers of the land.
The question of the identity of Christ, his divinity and his humanity, the relative proportions thereof, the exact point in his life when he turned Christ from Jesus – these continues to inflame passions and inspire reams of essays and brought about tragic consequences for Christians that would lead to so much more bloodshed in the future. In some ways, as Dr Jenkins notes, this history mimics what has happened in the Islamic world in the recent past. I’m not sure how deeply I believe this assertion, but he isn’t too off the mark either.
The book and the story it narrates is, in its own way, a sweeping epic worthy of George R R Martin. For anyone interested in the origins of modern orthodox Christian doctrine this book is a must-read. I enjoyed it immensely, I hope you do too.