Today I came across an article on Universalism in the Early Church. It is interesting and well referenced to reputable scholars in patristics. The author cites and impressive list of early church Fathers who were pro-universal salvation, and connects the switch in Christian theology to exclusivism with the writings of Augustine (in the late fourth and early fifth centuries), the Emperor Justinian and the Fifth Ecumenical Council in Constantinople in the sixth century.
As a student of patristics, I find this timing significant. Almost anyone who has studied the history of the Christian faith knows the name of Constantine as the emperor who made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire. Many now mournfully mark this event as a defining moment in the established Church’s abandonment of the teachings of Jesus. For those who led the churches at the time, it seemed a godsend.
However one understands the theological significance of the event, the joining of the Christian faith (and its organised expression) to the ruling powers of the Roman Empire established the Christian Church as a significant cultural institution for the first time. This institution was, in turn, used by the powers that be to control the lives and beliefs of the peoples of the empire. This is where the drive to identify the ‘orthodox’ version of Christian faith over against the ‘heretical’ versions gathered its momentum.
In the fourth century the debates centred around the divinity of Jesus, forming the eventual doctrine of the Trinity. In the fifth century the debate centred around the relationship between the two natures of Christ (divine and human). These debates took decades to brew and develop as bishops and theologians wrote letters and theses, contradicted and debated with one another, lobbied secular authorities for support and played politics in an attempt to ‘win’ the debate and get their understanding enshrined in the annals of an ecumenical council.
When I read this article today, I saw a continuity I had not before noticed. As the Roman Empire crumbled, the Roman Catholic Church, particularly in western Europe, became the most significant international power. The Roman pontiffs were, quite literally, kingmakers. What better to cement the Church’s power and authority than the enshrinement and propagation of the doctrine of limited atonement, together with the assurance that the Church holds the keys to eternal salvation.
The process of codification and exclusion that begins with Constantine seems, on reflection, to lead quite naturally to the discarding of the ideal of universal salvation in favour of exclusivist truth claims that give the Church the ultimate power over heaven and hell and, with that power, the ability to intimidate, control and exploit everyone from kings to serfs.
What a terrifying thought. Does the punitive theology of the afterlife actually exist because the institutional church could not sate its thirst for power?
Of course, the whys and wherefores, the causes and influences that shape church doctrine are many and complex, but if it is true that the vast majority of pre-Constantinian thinkers were open to if not exponents of the idea that all might eventually be ‘saved,’ then the post-Constantinian trend towards greater control of the lives of individual people seems clear to me.
What would it mean for Christians and churches today to realise that the message of Jesus has nothing to do with saving people from hell? What would Christianity be, if it wasn’t about “getting saved” and “going to heaven when you die”? What would “church” look like, if there was no need to codify or control correct doctrine, because no one’s “eternal soul” actually depends on it?
Would there be any need for an institution of church to exist at all?