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A case study in the development of doctrine

By Thomas V. Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Dec 12, 2015

The trouble with master narratives of history is the air of inevitability they lend to events that could have gone very differently. Historians are the ones who construct narratives, yet it is also their job to disrupt them, or at least to go beyond them so that rather than taking the past for granted, we see it in all its scandalous contingency.

Take the typical Catholic approach to the history of doctrine. Because we believe that the Church’s true doctrine is preserved by the Holy Spirit throughout history, and that nothing truly new is added to it, our master narrative is of a gradual unfolding of ideas that were present in seed form from the beginning of Christianity.

Even this narrative, which, unlike so many others, has the benefit of being true, can tempt us to be lazy historians. Our entirely justified confidence in the integrity of Catholic doctrine allows us to view theology in a vacuum, tracking doctrinal developments across centuries with a sense of inevitability.

In reality, even if the essence of a doctrine has always been there, its particular path of development is far from inevitable, guided by the hand of Providence though it is. Only by seeing it in the context of contemporary arguments, political upheavals, social shifts and spiritual crises can we understand why such development occurred at some times and not others, why doctrine was expressed in particular ways and why there may have been radical changes, if not in the doctrine itself, then in what was emphasized, based on the concerns of the time. Then we see a Church not just divine but also fully human, subject in many ways to the vicissitudes of history—the scandal of the Incarnation writ large.

In the introduction to his new book The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity, Peter Brown, the scholar who virtually invented the field of late antique studies, identifies the Catholic approach as one of two traditional narratives about Christian doctrine concerning death and the afterlife. The other, of course, is the Protestant narrative, which sees not developments or changes in emphases but a loss, in the latter half of the first millennium, of “some original, reputedly more Christian, vision.”

Brown, himself an Anglican, proposes to eschew both narratives, mainly because they tell us a good deal about what the early Christians believed from century to century but almost nothing about why these changes occurred. It is the why, incidentally, which may help us to determine whether we really should be talking about changes in doctrine or about mere developments. At any rate, Brown’s concern is not to construct a new, third narrative but to put doctrinal developments in their full historical context.

Augustine and the non valdes

With the conversion of Constantine in 312, for example, came a widening of the Church that had far-reaching consequences. Once being a Christian ceased to be a risk to one’s life and even became socially advantageous or necessary, rich pagan nobles began to enter the Church without necessarily leaving behind pagan-tinged, aristocratic views of the afterlife, in which a special place in the cosmos was reserved for those who had been “great ones” on earth.

At the same time, masses of the poor began to flood in. For the early Christians, assisting the poor had not been so much a matter of helping “the poor” as a group but of caring for fellow Christians, members of the community down on their luck. Now as the Church expanded to include the whole society, Christians had to be concerned with the poor as a demographic of faceless unknowns in need of help; as Brown puts it, the poor were increasingly “others” rather than “brothers.” Consequently, “it became easier to see almsgiving as a purely expiatory action that involved little or no bonding with the poor themselves.”

Not only was there a widening of social gaps within the Church, but of moral gaps as well. In the days of anti-Christian persecutions, those who became Christian did so knowing that they might be called upon to die for Christ: there was a basic level of commitment to heroic virtue required for the decision.

Once Christianity became mainstream, however, many people became Christians for mercenary reasons, while many others entered the Church who, however sincere their conversions, probably would not have had the courage to bear the name of Christ in previous centuries. In a word, the Church had now expanded to accept the mediocres as its largest and fastest-growing segment.

St. Augustine was well aware of this shift and, in his Enchiridion of 422, laid out appropriate terminology. There were the valde boni (altogether good), the valde mali (altogether evil), and finally the non valde boni and non valde mali—the not altogether good or altogether evil. What was to be done with this new group, the non valdes? What would be their fate?

This was not a mere theoretical question for Augustine, nor was it one he took upon himself spontaneously. As Africa’s most influential hierarch, he was in constant contact with Christian nobles and with other churchmen who had many questions about the afterlife. They wanted to know one thing in particular: what effect would their prayers, rituals, and actions in this life have on the souls of the dead? In his letters and sermons (including the Enchiridion, which itself was a response to the questions of one Laurentius), Augustine tried to piece together an answer.

Augustine’s statements about the afterlife were marked by cautious reserve. He said outright that he was reticent to make the other world too comfortable for believers, to give them a sense of safety that he himself did not have. In other words, however much some of his questioners might have wished, he was not about to offer them a magic bullet.

One idea about the fate of souls in the next world which Augustine discouraged had to do with the image of Christ as emperor, popular with the noble class. An important imperial virtue in Roman culture was clemency. Emperors would sometimes make a show of mercy via acts of amnesty: cancelling tax arrears, reducing or eliminating sentences. If Christ were like an emperor, not a few Christians reasoned, it might be hoped that he would grant a similar amnesty to sinners in the afterlife.

This idea was bolstered by such sources as the poet Prudentius and the apocalyptic Vision of Paul, in which Paul was said to have had a vision of Christ descending into hell in emperor’s garb in order to grant respite from punishment on every Sunday. Some even hoped that Christ, in His infinite mercy, might grant a general amnesty at the Last Judgment. Augustine was not happy with such representations of Christ the Judge which were, in Brown’s words, “based on the almost whimsical exercise of the imperial prerogative of mercy.” He wrote in the Enchiridion:

There is no harm in their thinking, if this gives them pleasure, that the penalties of the damned are at certain intervals of time somewhat eased.

But even if these physical punishments were the slightest that can be imagined, to perish from the kingdom of God, to be alienated from the presence of God, to be deprived of the abundance of God’s sweetness…So great is that punishment, that no torments we have ever experienced can be compared to it.

From pagan patronage to Christian giving

Rather than hoping for amnesty, Augustine bade his listeners do penance. An essential part of this, then as today, was almsgiving. When it came to giving alms, though, Augustine was not just thinking of the immediate spiritual benefits for the generous. It was also one front in his battle against the Pelagians, who among other errors advocated renunciation of all wealth. Augustine took a stand against this radicalism in part by defending and promoting almsgiving. He also found himself engaged in a slow, letter-by-letter and sermon-by-sermon campaign to change the way his noble hearers thought about giving away money.

The model of giving inherited from Greco-Roman culture is now known by the neologism euergetism: nobles were expected to pay for public building projects, games, festivals, and the general improvement of the cities they lived in. The wealthy were accustomed to benefiting their fellow-citizens by means of ostentatious gifts, but not to helping the poor as such. Indeed, the idea that they had any special obligation to the poor, or anyone outside the borders of their home city, was quite new to them.

Brown writes of the homiletic marching orders Augustine gave to his clergy: “The duty of the Christian preacher was to urge the rich no longer to spend their money on their beloved, well-known city, but to lose it, almost heedlessly, in the faceless mass of the poor.” Augustine often used thought experiments that could be easily understood by men of wealth and enterprise: think of giving to the poor as making an investment in the next world, or of making an "advanced purchase" of "treasure in heaven." The idea of, in effect, using earthly cash to shore up one's salvation is somewhat embarrassing to modern Christians, but it was essential to establishing the model of Christian giving that would last for many centuries.

For Augustine, giving in relatively small amounts on a daily basis was a way of doing penance for one's daily sins. This was also a change in the way the rich viewed their giving: formerly, it had been a means of self-glorification, much as today's philanthropy often is. Now it was something that emphasized that the rich were just as much sinners in need of salvation as anyone else.

This was not an invention of Augustine’s, of course—it had deep roots in Judaism. The prophet Daniel and the author of Ecclesiasticus both wrote about sin as a form of debt, redeemable with alms. This was not “crass commercialism,” but a way of seeing God’s infinite and startling mercy. What Augustine added was an emphasis on the need to atone for smaller daily sins by a small but consistent daily trifecta of penance, prayer and almsgiving. Both wealth and daily sin were considered, in Brown’s turn of phrase, as an “almost insensible buildup of a surplus” which could be adjusted by habits of giving that would themselves become almost unconscious and painless over time.

Full Circle

This is just one snapshot of Brown’s account of how social changes influenced the way Christians thought of wealth and the afterlife. A good portion of the book deals with the development of monastic communities in the Church in Gaul, which I do not have space to discuss here. As I hope is evident by now, Brown’s treatment is highly sympathetic, with few exceptions; as complex as it can get, it is essentially a story of believers trying to work out their salvation, finding concrete ways to connect this world with the next.

I noted earlier that while Brown’s historical methodology aims to go beyond either the Catholic or the Protestant narrative, his analysis of why certain doctrinal shifts occurred may give us a better sense of which narrative, if either, is ultimately correct. Indeed, while he begins the book referring to the changes in views of the afterlife between the third and seventh centuries as “Christianities of very different ages”—and indeed there were significant changes, if more of imagination than of doctrine—by the end he judges the “low-profile continuities of Christian thought and practice that link the third to the seventh centuries” to be equally important, and finally says the following:

What seems, at first sight, to be startlingly new and exotic often proves to be yet another mutation of a long-established species. There is very little in the dramatic debates between angels and demons in the visions of Fursa and of Barontus [two men of seventh-century Gaul who had visions of the afterlife] that Augustine had not considered (if with far greater hesitation) in his capacious works. What we take to be an irreversible change is frequently no more than a change of viewing point, as the spotlight of our evidence shifts to illuminate other aspects of the same continuum.

Brown himself finally places his emphasis not so much on what conceptions were being moved toward (such as the full medieval development of the doctrine of purgatory) as on what was left behind: “the erosion and final replacement of the mystique of the ancient cosmos by a Christian model of the universe dominated by the notion of sin, punishment and reward.” In other words, quite the opposite of the Protestant claim of pagan ideas infecting and taking over, it was paganism that was gradually being shed! No longer was the afterlife a matter of “great ones” taking their rightful place in the firmament while lesser souls dissipated into anonymity.

It is true, as Protestants like to point out, that pagan concepts were brought in when the Church went mainstream in the fourth century, and indeed they threatened to obscure and distort the faith. But what is important is that ultimately a true Christian vision won out. These struggles and arguments were necessary for the Church to deepen and refine her understanding of the deposit of faith. It is thus we can see the Holy Spirit guiding and preserving the Church as Christ promised—not, as we might have imagined, by keeping it hermetically sealed and static, but instead in a more marvelous and unpredictable way, growing, as a body grows, not just in spite of but in response to all the buffets of the world.

Thomas V. Mirus is an administrative assistant and writer at A jazz pianist with a music degree, he often takes the lead in our commentary on the arts. See full bio.

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