Is Theology Enslaved to Sociological Subtext?

In matters of theology and confessional identity, sociological analysis has been enjoying something of a heyday. Here “sociological” does not necessarily denote the discipline of sociology per se but a method of analysis, where identity, doctrines, or other ideological positions are dissected to reveal ulterior motives (conscious or unconscious) of certain social groups or classes of person as their real cause. Put differently, this mode of analysis looks for subtexts. In recent years, for example, attentive readers have probably lost count of the books and think pieces offering new interpretations of white evangelicalism along these lines – Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne is perhaps one of the most recent and well-known. In a different case, attention to sociological factors might offer puzzled Protestants compelling insight as to why Catholicism has attracted a surprising number of converts in recent decades.[1] Indeed, sociological approaches to theology appear to be generating more interest in many quarters than theology proper.[2] As a friend with firsthand experience recently explained to me, even many academic programs in the discipline of theology itself are disproportionately interested in social causes and effects of Christianity as opposed to study of the divine per se.

Regardless of what some may call its recent faddishness, the basic idea here is old, durable, and frankly indispensable in many cases. For historians and other scholars, this mode of explanation can be invaluable for explicating group behavior, and we would often be far the worse without it. Sociological analysis can help us understand complex human phenomena, including theological belief and religious behavior. There is also a kind of commonsensical quality to the approach: many people obviously don’t espouse what they do all or even most of the time from a well-considered, self-aware pursuit of the Good and the True.

Even so, like all models and theories, the argumentum ad sociologiam has its excesses and limitations. In an academic discipline like history where it can define entire subfields, sociological analysis tends to strangle traditional intellectual or political history in the cradle: no reason to tease out the transmission of Aristotelianism in late antiquity or delve into the nuances of the American Founding if all behavior is essentially an echo of culture, status, economics, or other systems of power. Needless to say, sociological explanation of this sort rarely flatters its objects, tending as it does to infer some mixture of bad faith, lack of self-awareness, or want of meaningful agency. Even the hard sciences have not escaped this kind of criticism, and a whole branch of sociology aims to uncover how supposed scientific “findings” are shaped and determined by social forces.[3] In contemporary polemical or near-polemical contexts involving Christianity, this mode of reasoning is tempting for other reasons: why think hard about your opponents’ theology when you can write it off as the product of some hidden self-interest?

Case Study: Formation of the New Testament Canon

Does sociological analysis, then, reign supreme and insuperably, making theology little more than a diaphanous cloak covering otherwise naked social forces? In answer to that question, we may find some instructive examples in the consolidation of the New Testament canon, which most scholars (if pressed) would put during the fourth century. Often taken as the watershed moment for the canon, Athanasius’ Festal Letter 39 in 367 AD lists the standard 27 books of the New Testament as canonical, making it one of the earliest canon lists to do so. Yet Athanasisu did not issue this canonical list in a vacuum. As insightful scholars have observed, local Egyptian challenges to Athanasius’ episcopal authority seem to have provoked the response.[4] The Melitian sectarians (similar in certain respects to the better-known Donatists) seem to have been particularly keen to read and invoke non-canonical texts in their theology. When the particulars are fully considered, Athanasius’ comparatively black-and-white presentation of the canon starts to look more like an attempt to box out his opponents’ theology (while buttressing his own) than a disinterested transmission of catechesis or tradition. In this case, the sociological analysis is indispensable, revealing relevant contexts and subtexts, helping make sense of why Athanasius wrote what he did.

This kind of explanation does not work as well in other cases, however. Decades prior to Festal Letter 39, around the year 300, Eusebius of Caesarea gave his own appraisal of the New Testament canon. In Ecclesiastical History 3.25, Eusebius takes a far more open-ended approach than Athanasius, listing multiple tiers of Christian consensus about various texts. If these provisional categories were not indefinite enough, Eusebius cross-lists the book of Revelation as both an “accepted” and an “illegitimate” (literally “bastard”) book. Particularly when it comes to Revelation, scholarly explanations for Eusebius’ judgment range from the perplexed to the cynical. Some have thought Eusebius simply could not make up his mind; others, trying a more sociological approach, have argued that Eusebius despised Revelation personally, but knew that Christian consensus of the day was firmly against him, hindering his candor. Pro-Constantine as he was, Eusebius had every reason to oppose millennialism and the Apocalypse’s patently unflattering depiction of Rome. This is certainly a coherent, plausible interpretation. But is it the right one?

While hunting for subtexts, these reconstructions missed the text itself—or, more precisely, missed other passages in Eusebius’ oeuvre that flesh out his thinking. As I have recently contended elsewhere in Journal of Early Christian History, Eusebius shows himself more than willing to quote and even cite from Revelation in some of his other writings, right beside other “accepted” books.[5] The problem for modern interpreters has been their presumption of a more rigid theology of the canon on Eusebius’ behalf, which led them to believe he was playing rhetorical games with Revelation’s status. On the contrary, Eusebius seems unbothered by the idea of presenting the historical arguments from both sides of the question and largely letting his readers reach their own conclusions. In all, this is a theory of the canon rather different from Athanasius’ and more akin to later humanists. Incidentally, when my Roman Catholic friends ask how I sleep at night sine magisterio, Eusebius’ formulation of the canon is one precedent I would invoke.[6] For a matter as fundamental as what books belonged in the Bible, Eusebius was neither agnostic nor indifferent. Nevertheless, he was one of many early Christian authorities who allowed for some flexibility in the joints of their systematic theology at the expense of surety—much more than many today would find tolerable, in the case of the canon.

More pertinently, if we could invent a historical case study in a laboratory as counterevidence to the sociology-as-destiny model of theology, it would be hard to top Eusebius’ handling of the canon. That is to say, Eusebius had every incentive to simplify and tilt the debate about Revelation in his preferred direction of acceptance, and there is reason to think he had influence as a major bishop and perhaps the foremost Christian scholar at the time. Eusebius was even commissioned by Constantine to produce fifty biblical codices, which would have been a massively expensive and time-consuming project before the printing press: no need to look for subtle power games under the surface with that kind of explicit auctoritas.[7] Although scholars have ironically read Eusebius’ even-handed treatment of Revelation as coy hostility, all indications are that he was more interested in the intellectual soundness of his analysis per se. Whereas Athanasius can be plausibly read as picking up the nearest discursive weapon to hand for his own institutional prerogatives, Eusebius seems disinterested in that kind of thing here, even though his perspectives would have had real purchase. His admission of some doubt about a theological issue does not easily lend itself to serving some subtextual agenda.

Of course, the more sociologically inclined could posit that this intellectual approach is itself the product of hidden social forces: Eusebius wanted to impress other erudite Christian and even pagan intellectuals, conditioned as he was by late antique paideia. Perhaps, but that move immediately evokes two responses. First, the sociological interpretation looks nigh unfalsifiable, such that no examples of disinterested intellectual actors can be proffered that would meaningfully push back against the model. Case studies can be marshalled—à la Thomas Kuhn in the sciences—to highlight sociological causation but apparently not to challenge it.

Second, even were we to concede that this model is “always right” in some sense, it would look like an increasingly inept heuristic device. To put it more conventionally, the theory that explains everything in fact explains precious little. Even stipulating that social forces are the prime movers in both Athanasius and Eusebius, why were the apparent outcomes in their theories of the canon so dissimilar? Certainly in historical terms, these contemporaries’ social and cultural similarities rather outweigh the differences. Both were elite bishops of eminent sees. Both spoke the same language, lived in the eastern section of the same empire, belonged to the same religion, and read many of the same books. Articulation of their theological and intellectual distinctiveness demands that we move from large-scale, deterministic, modular answers toward the granular, personal scale that allows for more intellectual agency and nuance.

In sum, sociological analysis does have real usefulness, especially when complemented by other instruments in the methodological toolkit. Ubiquitous application, however, tends to dull its edges and feed a cycle that zigzags the thin line between cynicism and ad hominem. This too is commonsensical, and most readers who place any value on theology in particular, and Christianity in general, probably intuit this already. As to why this mode of reasoning has thrived of late, that is a much bigger issue which itself probably requires asking some of its own unflattering sociological questions of the present age and its “Models” (to take a term from C. S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image). One conjecture: the cynical Models can rationalize cynical (i.e. bad) behavior in their adherents. If all argument basically amounts to contrivance in service of one’s tribe or self, then one may as well join the fray while the getting is good. Fortunately, there is reason for more optimism: thinking and arguing still occur in good faith in many quarters – perhaps even more so, as parties on all sides tire of being placed in sociological boxes. If the inclinations of the present age bind theology to sociology like a slave, the chain is a brittle one. A closer look at historical sources is often more than enough to break it.

Andrew Koperski is a doctoral candidate in ancient history at The Ohio State University. His fields of focus include Late Antiquity, Early Christianity, and Byzantium. Much of his current research examines the formation of the biblical canon and the reception of apocryphal literature.

  1. Brad Littlejohn and Chris Castaldo, “Why Protestants Convert, Pt. IV: The Sociology of Conversion,” Oct. 28, 2021.

  2. See Jake Meador’s consonant evaluation in “Racial Reconciliation and the Queen of the Sciences,” Mere Orthodoxy, July 30, 2021.

  3. That social forces do play some role is clear, but philosophers of science, on the other hand, remain mostly skeptical that such forces play the only or prime role in the process. See for example Robert Klee’s treatment in Introduction to the Philosophy of Science: Cutting Nature at Its Seams (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

  4. See especially David Brakke’s “Canon Formation and Social Conflict in Fourth-Century Egypt: Athanasius of Alexandria’s Thirty-Ninth ‘Festal Letter,’” The Harvard Theological Review 87, no. 4 (1994): 395–419 and “A New Fragment of Athanasius’s Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter. Heresy, Apocrypha, and the Canon,” The Harvard Theological Review 103, no. 1 (2010): 47–66. The bulk of the letter survives only in Coptic.

  5. Andrew R. Koperski, “Eusebius, Revelation, and Its Place in the New Testament Canon,” Journal of Early Christian History (November 12, 2021): 1–16. (open access)

  6. As exemplified by the likes of Eusebius or Jerome, the history of the canon’s formation firmly defies the notion that ecclesiastical institutions (e.g. councils) did the leg work of defining the canon from the top down. Councils, emperors, and bishops all helped in their way but typically only after intellectual authorities had set the terms.

  7. Frustratingly, we do not know which books Eusebius chose to put in these codices. We do know, however, that the eastern churches especially continued to debate the status of Revelation and many of the general epistles for centuries.


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