Christendom As A System

As time went on, Christianity turned into a political force. Thanks to Constantine, the Church persecuted became the Church triumphant. Constantine liberated the Church, possibly for political reasons. As a result the Church carne to constitute what is referred to in theology as Christendom. The distinction between Christianity and Christendom is an important one. "Christianity" is the Christian religion. "Christendom" is a cultural reality. The former is a religion, the latter is a cultural totality which derives its basic orientation from Christianity. That is the way in which I am using the terms here.

Christendom first unified the liturgy and established it in a fixed form. Instead of continuing to grow and change with reallife, the liturgy was fixed once and for all. Fluctuation and diversity could not be allowed much room in the new empire, so the number of differing liturgical families was gradually reduced. This process affected the Latin rite almost from the very start. In a relatively short time the Roman rite liturgy was, practically speaking, the only one left in the West. Simultaneously we see the appearance of huge conglomerates of people and of basilicas. In many cases these crowds of people were baptized and entrusted with a serious responsibility towards history without being adequately instructed. Unlike the early converts, these people were often baptized as children and hence entered the Church as such.

Some Christians realized that all this was quite remote from the Gospel message. They began to remove themselves to deserted areas, and even deserts. As the Church became the majority force, monasticism also began to come into prominence. Men and women devoted to God began to realize that their culture was not Christian. The fact is that no culture as such can be Christian, because Christianity can never be a culture. Those who are "gathered together"

by Christ form a Church, not a culture. Christendom, as a cultural totality, was a mixture of Christian and hellenistic elements. It was a political unity. Hence Constantine convened and dissolved CounciIs. TheologicaI disputes were often bound up with other issues, including economic ones. The course of a Council might be affected by such questions as whether the crops of Alexandria could be sold in Constantinople.

Christendom was not just an ecclesiastical unity; it was also a military and economic unity. The bishops who had lived under persecution now became important authorities, passing judgment on a variety of issues. Ambrose, for example, forced an emperor to get down on his knees before him. Simultaneously this culture, now labelled "Christian," became a matter of tradition. What it meant to be a Christian was taken as something well known and obvious, and it was handed down from generation to generation. One became a Christian by birth, not by conversion, and people stopped asking what it really meant to be a Christian.

This mixture of Christianity and culture known as Christendom had its own philosophy. It was predominantly Platonic or Neoplatonic in cast, although its panoply of Iogic was more or Iess Aristotelian. The great Fathers of the Church around this time-Origen, Irenaeus, BasiI, Gregory, and Augustine-were well versed in philosophy. All of them were faced with problems that could not be soIved in terms of hellenistic conceptualization. Origen's book on . first principIes, is a modeI example of their problems and procedures.

In this book Origen tries to be a hellenist for the hellenists and a Christian for the Christians. His anthropological doctrine goes something Iike this. In the beginning God created pure spirits. Some sinned excessively; they were the demons. Some sinned slightly; they were the angeIs. Others sinned moderately. For them God created the material cosmos and inserted them into bodies; they are the souls of human beings. On the one hand Origen wants to defend the doctrine of creation; on the other hand he wants to uphold the body-soul dualism. For him, man is an unstable unity of soul and imprisoning body. When man dies, his immortal soul will be set free whereas his mortal body will suffer corruption and decay. This much is acceptable to the Greek. To satisfy the Christian, however, he must also include the whole aspect of resurrection. Origen seems to do this insofar as he does maintain that the body will rise again. But the fact is that his risen body is so spiritualized that it is really a pure and unsullied soul.

Now it might seem that Origen did succeed in defending both a Christian and a Greek doctrine. But the fact is that Christianity has never taught "the resurrection of the body." It talks about the "resurrection of the dead" or the resurrection "of the flesh." The dangers inherent in Origen's thought wbre soon sensed, and opposition to him grew. This critical conflict, which deserves our attention, was centered in Alexandria because that city was a focus of culture and of hellenism. The "school of Alexandria," which began with Clement, taught a doctrine of"gnosis."It was a Christian "gnosis," to be sure, and it continued to grow as time went on. Gradually this hellenizing theology sought to work out an epistemological approach which would bring it in line with the approach of Aristotle. In this form it came to the West, and theology lost all sense of history and its meaning.

A new start was made in the nineteenth century by the Tübingen School. Hegel, Schelling, and Hölderlin studied in the Lutheran school of theology in Tübingen, and Hegel's thought would have a profound influence on Ferdinand Baur. A few blocks away, Möhler was teaching at the Catholic seminary. One might well say that modern theology stems from the basic notion of "salvation history" (Heilsgeschichte) , which enabled theology to recover its sense of history after centuries of neglect.


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