Bloody, fifth-century feud over Christ's humanity resonates today

March 18, 2010

University Park, Pa. -- For 2,000 years, the paradoxical nature of Jesus Christ -- that he embodied completely both the human and the divine -- has been at the core of Christian belief. Yet there was a time, according to history and religious studies scholar Philip Jenkins, Penn State's Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Humanities, when this belief was on extremely shaky ground.

In his new book, "Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years," Jenkins documents the history of how powerful religious and state leaders feuded over the church's position on Christ's human nature, and how, if it were not for key decisions made then, there likely would not be a papacy as we know it.

Arguing "what happened in the fifth century is still shaping subsequent history," Jenkins says that the way in which Christ's nature was determined had far-reaching effects and can help us understand how a religion evolves -- a topic particularly relevant today, for example, in debates currently raging about Islam.

"Jesus Wars" chronicles in detail the conflict between a relative handful of extremely powerful people who waged war over their respective agendas in councils and on the bloody battlefield. The book delves deep into the "turbulent relationship" between religion, violence and politics, focusing on the Councils of Ephesus in A.D. 431 and Chalcedon in A.D. 451.

"During the fifth century there were two sides, both of which thought Christ was God," Jenkins explained. "What varied was the idea of how much humanity he held. The view that won and became orthodoxy was the view that Christ was both fully human and fully divine. The view that lost was the 'One Nature' view -- the idea of Christ in which the human nature was wholly overwhelmed by divinity."

The irony, he said, is "they agreed in almost everything except those theological points that they were willing to kill each other over."

Religious war, says Jenkins, is rarely ever just about religion. The councils, composed of the highest leaders of church and state, were heavily influenced by politics and personal agendas, and complicated by matters often unrelated to the issues at hand.

"It may seem like ancient history," he said, "but these pivotal events shaped not just Christianity, but the history of the whole Christian world up until modern times, and probably into the far future, since Christianity is doing very well in many parts of the world."

In the end, he said, the Church got to keep the belief that Jesus was human at the cost of not only thousands of lives, but also thousands of followers. The Church permanently fractured as feuding Christians split along belief lines: those who followed the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches on the one hand, against most of the ancient Eastern churches on the other.

"It makes you wonder," Jenkins adds, "if it was worth pulling Christianity apart?"

While Christianity would be very different now, it also is possible that it wouldn't exist at all, since a changing world demands an evolving view. In the book, he concludes that "a religion that is not constantly spawning alternatives and heresies has ceased to think and has achieved only the peace of the grave."

The past events that unfold in "Jesus Wars" and their eventual resolution hold lessons for modern times, not just about Christianity, but about how any religion forms and re-forms itself.

Jenkins has written 24 books, a third of which cover the history and current state of Christianity. He also is a distinguished senior fellow at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University.

"Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years," is published by HarperOne Press.

  • IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 28, 2017