Review: Christianity in the Roman Empire

Christianity in the Roman empire

Christianity in the Roman EmpireRobert E. Winn. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2018.

Summary: A survey of Christian history in the post-apostolic era from 100 to 300 A.D., introducing the reader to key figures, events, controversies, and the development of various church practices and structures.

For many of us, there is a huge gap in our knowledge of the history of Christianity that extends from the close of the New Testament era until the Reformation era. The era this book covers, 100-300 A.D. was particularly crucial not only in the church’s response to persecution, but also in the development of various aspects of church order and practice and the growing recognition of the body of works the church would consider canonical, and figuring out the relation of these to the Hebrew scriptures they began to call the Old Testament. In addition, controversy forced the church to more clearly articulate its understand of key beliefs, particularly related to the person of Christ.

Robert E. Winn presents this material in a compact 137 pages of text, suitable for use in an adult education series, small group, or reading group, as well as for personal reading. He divides his treatment into three parts:

  1. Christianity in the Year 100. He begins with the contours of Christianity in the first generation following the apostolic era. They had arisen out of a Jewish context that has been decimated in its rebellions against Rome from which they drew apart, they spoke of Jesus as “Lord” and had developed clear authority structures and a moral life. Roman rulers like Pliny were presented with a conundrum of how to treat them. Early teaching in The Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas set out the distinctive way Christians ought live. Clement of Rome’s letter to the Corinthians builds on this and reminds them of their common faith, as well as obedience to the bishops as key to their unity. Ignatius, in addition to addressing the importance of obedience to the bishops, is perhaps the earliest to address false teaching, both from “Judaism” and from the docetists, who maintained that Christ only “appeared” to be human. The section closes with these teachers instructions on church order including baptism and the Eucharist, laying groundwork still evident 2000 years later.
  2. Christianity in a Hostile World. Over the next 150 years, the church confronted attacks on its teaching and very existence. The section opens with the first comprehensive attack on Christian doctrine and practice by Celsus, and the anonymous response in the epistle to Diognetus, a Roman official. Then, Winn summarizes Justin Martyr’s First Apology, responding to charge that Christians are atheists, immoral, and disloyal to the empire. While Christians are not searched out from house to house, key leaders are martyred, including Polycarp, and two women, Perpetua and Felicity, whose stories are recounted. The persecution threatens the unity of the church about how those who denied their faith to escape death should be treated if they seek re-admission to the church. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage was a key figure in arriving at a response that was kind of a via media between extreme factions on either side of the issue.
  3. Faith and Practice in the Third Century. The church’s belief and practice continued to develop in the third century. Winn opens his discussion with the development of a canon, and the different ways of reading scripture that developed, the typological being represented by Melito, and the allegorical represented by Origen. Irenaeus of Lyon’s articulation of the faith around the triune God, against heretical ideas, is considered. Tertullian’s defense of Christianity against Marcion follows in defending the divinity and humanity of Jesus. He returns to Origin in his teaching on prayer, emphasizing both the hours, and the postures of prayer. We close with Eusebius’ history of early Christianity, striking in his account of Christians’ response to plague, the transmission of the faith, and the dealing with heretics like Paul of Samosata.

Each chapter includes questions at the conclusion to review and reflect on the chapter content. Chapters are short and many include quoted material from the early Christian writers. There is a “What to Read Next” section at the end of the book that provides both general readings and books on each part, many of which are texts on, or by, the early church fathers.

Perhaps the one surprising omission in this work is the lack of discussion of Gnosticism, and the challenge it posed, particularly in the second century. This is all the more significant given the resurgence of interest in Gnosticism in our own era, and even the contention that it was an alternative form of Christianity that was suppressed by “official” Christianity. Irenaeus was a key figure in these controversies and Against the Heresies an important part of the church’s response. Winn summarizes this work but is silent about Gnosticism.

What this book does do is provide a concise treatment of early Christian history, focused on Christian practice, key beliefs, and the response to the ever-present threat of persecution from Rome. Winn acquaints us with the writings of the early fathers (the reading of which I would encourage!). He helps us see the origins of ways of reading scripture, of articulating and defending the church’s faith, and ordering the church’s life that are with us in some form to this day.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

2 thoughts on “Review: Christianity in the Roman Empire

  1. Bob, Thanks for highlighting this resource.

    Another one: I’m enjoying the concise summaries of this time period in Jonathan Hill’s “The History of Christian Thought,” which also moves forward to the Reformation and beyond. Hill offers a nice overview of Gnosticism and the fathers that engaged with it.

    And of course Roger Olson’s “The Story of Christian Theology” goes into these matters more in-depth.

    I find that a working knowledge of the early church’s thought, disputes, and practices is vital to conversations about Christianity on campus. Often, critics of the faith know little of this material.

  2. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: November 2018 | Bob on Books

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