Sinners and Saints, Derek Cooper. Grand Rapids, Kregel Academic, 2018.
Summary: An unvarnished summary of the first five hundred years of church history, looking unflinchingly at the flaws, as well as the favorable qualities of early Christians.
Perhaps the worst thing any institution, and especially the church, can do is to pretend that it is better than it really is. As disheartening as it is to hear of respected leaders guilty of very human failings, it is even more repugnant when those leaders, and sometimes powerful institutions behind them, cover up those failings in images of sweetness and light. In so doing, institutions try to “gin up” their own sham holiness, instead of the genuine holiness God works when meeting people in their brokenness.
Derek Cooper believes that many of our church histories reflect this same pretense in portraying the church and its leading figures. This work, which covers the first five hundred years of church history, and is first of a series, takes a different approach. Cooper writes:
“Unlike countless other church history books that dance around the distasteful details of our Christian past, let’s humanize our history. Counterintuitively, perhaps, let’s emphasize as much grit as glory, let’s feature as much flesh as faith, and let’s showcase as many sinners as saints. It’s important for you to know at the onset, however, that we are not going to do this because we think mudslinging is a spiritual discipline, but only because we believe truth-telling is. I, personally, have no desire to sully the reputation of saints, nor do I find any pleasure in wallowing in the faults of our most faithful. When I air the dirty laundry of our most hallowed heroes and heroines, I am fully aware of all the clean clothes they have neatly pressed and attractively arrayed in their dresser drawers. Because of the nature of this book, I will not usually refer to that clean laundry; but make no mistake: I know it is there” (p. 11).
The approach of the book is thematic rather than chronological. He surveys these ten themes, and here are some of the highlights and my takeaways:
- Daily life. Except for the rich it was dirty, toilsome, and short.
- Leadership. From Paul on Christian leaders “led with a limp” and often fought tenaciously in controversy. Damasus, who commissioned the Vulgate translation, fought a bloody battle for his papacy in which 137 died.
- Martyrdom. While some martyrs died nobly, martyrdom was often sought in almost suicidal passion by some. Before his martyrdom, in pursuit of holiness, Origin castrated himself.
- Church faith and practice. In many respects, it would have looked strange to us: dinners in graveyards, holy kissing (and perhaps not-so-holy), and nude baptisms.
- Apologetics. This arose in response to attack on the church from both Romans and Jews. Able defenders like Justin Martyr and Chrysostom also helped introduce anti-Semitism to Christian rhetoric.
- The family tree of heresy and orthodoxy. From the beginning, controversy existed between the line of Simon the Magician and Simon Peter when it came to defining Christian orthodoxy. Cooper traces the rise of apostolic succession in the bishop of Rome as the authoritative means of adjudicating doctrinal disputes and defining heresy.
- Canon and apocrypha. Cooper discusses both the criteria of canonical New Testament books but the contents of the apocryphal ones–everything from apocryphal infancy and childhood narratives to the possibility that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’s girlfriend. He also discusses the recently found fragment of The Gospel of Judas.
- God and money. With the growth and eventually Constantinian patronage of the church, the question became how to interpret (or re-interpret) the radical gospel teaching about money, widening the needle’s eye, as it were for the increasingly rich patrons of the church.
- Sexuality. Cooper traces how the church moved beyond chastity in its response to the promiscuity of the Roman world (where wives were simply for the procreation of legitimate heirs, and husbands sought pleasure elsewhere with both sexes) to the sometimes ambiguous, and sometimes clear privileging of abstinence and celibacy that reflected a view of all sexual intimacy as filthy. In the cases of both Jerome and Augustine, their own sexual histories may well have shaped their subsequent views.
- Missions: We learn about the spread of Christianity to other parts of the world–Africa, India, and Armenia–which may very well hold the title as the oldest Christian nation on earth.
Cooper writes in an engaging, witty style and definitely achieves his aim of an honest account of the failings and foibles and follies of the early Christians. While almost none of this was new to me, it was helpful to find this material in a work of popular scholarship, not buried in turgid text or footnotes, or hurled at the Christian community without context in an atheist diatribe.
In his introduction, Cooper alludes to the “clean clothes” of these saints, and that he “know[s] it is there.” I believe he does, and the text shows some evidence of this. However, I would not commend this as a stand-alone history of this period but as a complement to a standard church history text, particularly in an introductory church history course. Not everyone will know about the “clean laundry.” Most good modern church histories are not hagiographies, but this book serves as a good complement in “keeping it real.”
Just as it does not do the church well to conceal its flaws, controversies, and most grievous sins, it likewise does not serve well to gloss over these in our histories. An honest rendering, in books like this, reminds us of the challenges the church has always faced, from within as well as from without. It also reminds us of the providence of God– that through such flawed, broken people the Christian message has spread throughout the world, and with it literacy, universities, hospitals, and the rule of law, as well as unhelpful things like colonialism. Ultimately, the story isn’t about how good we are but rather how sovereignly gracious God has been with this motley bunch of sinner-saints.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.