The End of Ancient Christianity

R. A. Markus, Cambridge UP, 1998, reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Markus outlines the nature of the changes that transformed the intellectual and spiritual horizons of the Christian community from the fourth to the sixth centuries. He summarizes how Christians, who had formerly constituted a threatened and beleaguered minority, came to define their identity as religious respectability, where their faith became a source of privilege and power.

        Markus details the transition from the Roman world to the established cultural life of the church, and points out the change in the way Christians understood what was involved in following the Lord (p xii).

        The central questions from the early church to the present ecclesiastical form, is ‘how tightly is Christianity bound to particular cultural forms’ (p 1); the emphasis on change has resulted more often in cultural disturbance than in conversion. He points out that Christians are generally more worried about what pagans are doing, than about what they believe, and explores the boundaries of Christianity, ‘what minimally will make a convert a Christian’ (p 6). ‘Pagan survival’ is seen as what resists the efforts of Christian clergy to abolish, to transform, to control (p 9).

        In the change of religion, how many ordinary details of daily life are bound to continue unchanged? Does Christianity have to develop ‘it’s own way of doing everything? What counts as decisive criteria of religious faithfulness?’ Asceticism was seen by some (emphasis on ‘some’) of the early church as normative. Thus the early church sometimes emphasized the common good, rather than implementing ‘Christian’ structures.

        The early Augustine held that games and races ‘belonged among those human institutions which could cause the laudable ends of seeing creative cohesion among people, even the theatre and actors’ (p 121). ‘Virtue, meekness, almsgiving, true wisdom of good—these are the things a city should be praised for’ (p 228). The early church worked hard at identifying the common good, not necessarily in rejecting all the structures that they encountered.

        It’s a book that forces us to see what social priorities should be; we tend to make religious criteria the evaluative tool for social institutions; the early church had a broader perspective—a helpful approach.

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.