Peter Heather’s Excellent (and Accidentally Protestant?) History

Heather, Peter. Christendom: The Triumph of a Religion, AD 300-1300. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2023.

Describing the contemporary scholarly tendency to reject notions of one ancient Christian “orthodoxy,” Mark Edwards has remarked that “the bellwethers of this modern historiography have been Protestants by culture if not conviction.” That is, “the picture of ancient Christendom” emerging from this historiography seems to mirror the religio-cultural world familiar to most Protestants, with its “loose confederacy of denominations” and Christianities in the plural, as opposed to an airtight institutional or theological definition. Even so, notes Edwards, this resemblance hardly disproves the historical narrative produced by these cultural Protestants. Early Christian history is messy, after all.

Edwards’s observation kept knocking about in my head as I progressed through one of the most impressive books I have seen in the last several years: Christendom: The Triumph of a Religion, AD 300–1300, by the historian (and self-described lapsed Anglican) Peter Heather. Months ago, I made some predictions about the book’s contents, predictions that felt largely vindicated by the time I put my copy down. What I failed to anticipate was the text’s breadth and depth. Anyone interested in Christian history should get a hold of this text and settle in for a well-written book that still deserves to be read slowly.

Would that I had this on my shelf as an undergraduate. It is no small feat to recount a millennium of a religion’s history, but Heather does this effectively by foregrounding Christianity primarily against the backdrop of politics. Readers will, for example, not only learn a lot about different schools of monasticism or the evolution of the papacy. They will also get a useful introduction to Roman tax policy, the main differences between the Merovingian and Carolingian regimes, status competition between Anglo-Saxon warlords, etc.

Obviously, I cannot speak to the granular quality of every chapter, since many cover areas well beyond my familiarity. All the same, it bodes well for Heather that in those fields I know best, his treatment more than holds up. In fact, the book even managed to point me in a helpful direction once or twice on highly specific questions leftover from my dissertation: an encouraging sign that Christendom does not sacrifice quality to cover such a wide chronology. The plentiful endnotes also generally confirm that sense. True, knowledgeable readers can quibble with some of Heather’s colorings here and there (as I do below), but in the main, he more than succeeds in backing up his interpretations.

In a way, then, Heather has managed to summarize much of European history writ-large from late antiquity up to about the late Middle Ages. And that is where Protestantism first enters the conversation. To start where Christendom ends, it seemed as though the last few chapters were gesturing vigorously toward the chronological horizon, anticipating the Reformation. One might be forgiven for suspecting Heather himself finds the whole apparatus of the high medieval church as constituted c. 1300—with all its recently consolidated power to standardize, enforce, and coerce—superlatively distasteful, even to a degree unmatched by earlier eras of Christian unsavoriness in the book. Readers may find themselves thinking, “Well, this all clearly goes to show why these folks badly needed a Luther. This top-down arrangement was just asking to be smashed.” Maybe with a bit of relief on behalf of the high medieval Christian, the reader recalls that 1517 was not too far around the corner, and the humanistic turn even closer.

Depending on how wedded they are to a certain vision of ecclesiastical history, some Roman Catholics may not love these later chapters, if not for the oppressiveness Heather depicts, then for how he underscores the system’s stark novelty even by the high Middle Ages. Juxtaposed with most of the book’s story, readers will see how unusual that high medieval church was compared to earlier iterations. Indeed, Catholics and Protestants alike too often retroject that now discarded image back onto everything between Nicaea and Wittenberg: it was all just the amorphous era of the “medieval church” or “medieval Christianity.” Heather reminds everyone that this mental picture is a historical mirage. Even in the medieval era, Christianity underwent crucial developments comparable to the Reformation.

Heather’s throughline is that Christianity ended up looking the way it did mostly due to political and sometimes sociological factors, not because of any special earnestness, virtue, or “superiority” qua religious system. (I have explained my own thinking on this causality elsewhere, but the short version is the effectiveness of that explanation depends on showing one’s historical work on a case-by-case basis.) In Christendom, Heather has compiled not only much research but some particularly compelling thought experiments to help interpret the data. For example, why and how did the Roman empire undergo Christianization? Heather argues it has much more to do with the state’s patronage of elites and the political ingredients of Roman status. Thus, the all-consuming “Arian” debate (as we remember it) really hung on the preference of emperors and kings, which itself often turned on political expediency rather than strict theological probity. Meanwhile, the so-called “ecumenical” councils—and here some Protestants might start to join the discomfiture—were the rather sordid creatures of the imperial court. Christological orthodoxy, then, only emerged because of political brokering, not theological force of argument. Among the various proofs, Heather shows how the “Arian” position nearly carried all of Europe to become the faith of Christendom. Contingency—usually political contingency—made the “Nicaean” position victorious, barring naked appeals to Providence.

Later—and this may be Heather’s favorite case study—Christian elites of erstwhile Roman territories converted en masse to Islam. Cultural Christianity constituted just that and not much more: a way for elites to get along with the political order and have access to its not inconsiderable resources and social privileges. Precious few actually shared Augustine’s evangelical conversion experience. In the Roman era and well after, Christian evangelism too would adapt itself to local conditions, leading to strange instances of syncretism or moral lapse, such as when clerics condoned aristocratic polygamy with appeals to the Old Testament. In Heather’s account, cuius regio, eius religio was the rule de facto, if not de jure. Where Christianity “won,” it frequently did so only by serious accommodations and compromise with the powerful.

Still, I wonder whether every such case of accommodation reveals everything I infer Heather intends to imply. Take Christianity’s turn to Hellenic intellectual categories: grammar, rhetoric, literacy criticism, philosophy, etc. Heather seems to detect a kind of backsliding collusion at play here, not unlike the later Christian compromises with warfare, institutional wealth, and polygamy. To be sure, Jesus and his first followers were probably Aramaic-speaking peasants lacking technical paideia—so the New Testament itself advertises at points. Less clear is the formal educational status of someone such as Paul, who clearly was not completely uninformed as to Greek intellectual currents. By the second century, moreover, there are plenty of signs that Christian intellectuals—Polycarp, Justin, Hegesippus, Irenaeus—were framing both their external apologetics and their intra-Christian doctrinal disputes in terms of paideia. When Irenaeus, for example, shows off his extensive knowledge of Homer and refers to his Christian opponents’ sacred books as notha (“bastards”), he was essentially invoking the canons of grammatical education. In my view, this tells us a lot about his intended audience: the reasonably well-educated, which in turn suggests the earliest Christians were not as “anti-rationalist” or anti-intellectual, as some scholars have framed it. Instead, it seems that Christians, to the extent they had deliberate intellectual categories, were borrowing from Hellenism from quite early. The practices may have intensified after Constantine for obvious reasons, but it had been afoot for some time already.

When Heather sees Christianity dressed in Hellenism’s pallium, he seems to suspect just another entry in a long line of discrediting compromises. But supposing arguendo that Christianity’s core tenets (more on this below) were true. How exactly would one expect early Christian discourse to look? At least for the Greek-speaking and educated, it seems perfectly natural that they would translate Christianity into Hellenic categories as best they could. When they undertake the project of defining what we now call the biblical canon, for instance, we would expect to find them debating this literature according the “best practices” of their culture’s literary criticism (i.e., “grammar”), which is indeed what we see. It also would make sense that some would read certain difficult passages allegorically, much like their Platonist counterparts. This is to say, cultural translation does not necessarily mean the translator has kept bad faith with first principles. After all, as all classicists and ancient historians know, some translations are much better—more “faithful”—than others.

But the matter of “first principles” raises a stickier, more abstract problem that clings to this and other histories of early Christianity like a damp garment. One can hardly fault Heather for not addressing it directly. To put it as a question, what exactly is “original Christianity,” and is that an intelligible standard of comparison for later iterations of Christianity? Throughout Christendom, without saying it in so many words, Heather aptly proves that many of the later “translations” into other cultural contexts were the theological equivalents of the ungrammatical Latin that also proliferated in the early Middle Ages. Fair enough, we might say, but that also supposes a fairly clear, historically knowable baseline, an Urchristentum, to ground the comparison.

Since at least the postmodern turn, however, it has become outré in the study of religion to make such value judgments. All iterations of Christianity, we are told, have equal validity; to suggest anything less is to renounce our position as etic observers. And there is truth in this, of course. Historians and scholars of religion should avoid slipping into the “no true Scotsman” mode of analysis, which has been a real problem in the past. All the same, this surely cannot mean it is conceptually viable that everyone is a Scotsman, even—and this lodges near the very heart of contemporary, sacred wranglings about “identity”—those who might claim the name. The saner approach would seem to be striving for some golden mean between the two conceptual extremes. Unfortunately, that still exposes one to charges of having committed an “essentialism,” which in some circles today can feel a little like being accused of Christological heresy in the fourth and fifth centuries.

Heather has done us a favor insofar as he, by his own admission, thinks about early and medieval Christianity differently than the venerable “Peter Brown” school of late antique scholarship. Although it covered the same period, Heather’s earlier work has generally not focused on Christianity per se. By coming in from the outside, as it were, he has let in some fresh air. As such, he seems comparatively unafraid of committing implicit essentialisms. In some passages, he does seem keen to avoid explicit value judgments, but these struck me as mostly discordant with the larger tone and tenor of Christendom. Again, one can hardly blame Heather for not grabbing the theoretical third rail eagerly with both hands; it would have unduly sidetracked an already broad project while making certain reviewers thoroughly grumpy indeed.

Still, we can dream of one day seeing this intellectual tension dragged into the light for direct treatment. And this point about value judgments is the second reason I kept thinking about Protestant historiography with this book. If more recent “Protestants,” such as Peter Brown, have tended toward confessional relativism as described by Edwards, the older adherents were more likely to define their first principles and judge competing religious expressions against them. In religious studies, one even finds an entire mythos that Protestants “invented” our idea of “religion.” This partly explains why “Protestant” often takes a pejorative tone when spoken by scholars of early Christianity: Protestantism also has a strong anti-relativist, polemical streak when it turns to Christian history. Albeit mostly implicit, Heather’s theory of Christianity comes closer to this school, at least in my estimation. So while traditional Christians will differ with him on what ultimately to make of Christianity, Heather has written a history that they all ought to know.


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