Larry Arnn and Kenneth Calvert On The History Of The Early Church
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HH: My favorite hour of the week on the radio. It’s the Hillsdale Dialogue, which from the beginning of the year forward, I have spent with Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, and/or one of his many wonderful colleagues there, discussing the great works in history of the West. And a new guest joins Dr. Arnn this week from the Hillsdale Studio. Dr. Kenneth Calvert, who’s the headmaster of Hillsdale Academy, indeed he has been that since 2003. He’s also on the History Faculty at Hillsdale College, where he’s been since 1996. Dr. Calvert received his B.A. from Wheaton College, his M.Div. from Gordon Cromwell. He’s got a Harvard degree in there, so that’s good. We like that. But his doctorate is from Miami University. He’s a Redhawk. My son did his undergraduate history work there, not at the same time, sadly, that you were there, Dr. Calvert. So welcome, it’s great to have a Redhawk on the show.
KC: Thank you, great to be here.
HH: And Dr. Arnn, I’m glad that you are open to hiring Buckeyes.
LA: Yeah, well, a select few are ready to join the bottom of our faculty.
HH: (laughing) Someday, when you put in a pool and you actually have a swim team at Hillsdale, call me, and I’ll send my Redhawk to apply for a job up there. Dr. Calvert, we’re going to talk about the early Christians.
HH: And we’re going to do so by going backwards. We began last week to talk about the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. And Dr. Arnn pointed out we were at 160AD, and we’d skipped a lot from Cicero up to that. And a lot of that time is filled in with early Christianity. And I think the very first question has to be, as we try and bring the Church up to its merger with Rome under Constantine, why do we even care about these early Christian writers? We’ve got the Gospels, etc., but why do we care about these 325 years on which we will focus this week, and maybe even next?
KC: Well, these are the foundations of Christianity. This is where we go right back to the roots, to Jesus and His followers, and to those who came after, those who after His death and resurrection and ascension, went out into all the world, preached the Gospel as He had told them to do so. And the writings, the Apostolic writings, the Gospels, the four Gospels that were passed onto His followers, the practices that were passed onto his followers, all of these serve as the foundation of all Christians.
HH: But Dr. Arnn, then, the question rises, why are we teaching this, because we live in a secular world, and Hillsdale is a secular college with great religious roots, but obviously this early Christianity stuff is not like reading the Iliad, it’s not like reading Cicero and Marcus Aurelius. This is really issues of revelation and not reason.
LA: Well, if you want to, that’s a good question, and if you want to be a thinking Christian, then this is the place where Christianity began to work out how it would account for itself in light of all of the learning that had gone on before it. And so there’s a doctrine of god in Aristotle, and the Christian God is not the same god. And there are heresies that come up that are around the problems that are latent in that fact. So first of all, how are you going to think about God after the Christian revelation, given what was known about Him before? That’s one question. And the second is Christianity had to find its place in relation to the greatest empire in history. And it did that, and it had to work all that out.
HH: Now Dr. Calvert, Dr. Arnn and I previously have talked about the New Testament writings, and the Epistles as well as the Gospels, and Revelation. Now that presents a framework in which the Church goes forward, and becomes the historic text, the New Testament. But what’s going on, on the ground, in the Roman empire?
KC: Well, on the ground is this, that the Christians, as they expand, and as new converts come into Christianity, there is immediately a conflict, because they cannot worship the gods of the empire. And therefore, they’re persecuted. They’re called traitors. They are called haters of humanity and called impious. And what the Christians begin to do through their lives and through their actions is to show that actually, it’s quite the opposite, that the servants of Christ not only are preservers of life, they take care of the poor, they take care of the ill, but they also are law abiding. Paul and Peter both admonished the Christians to honor the king, honor the government that God has established. And so it becomes very difficult for the empire to continue to persecute these people who are law abiding and good people. Polycarp, a great bishop of 156AD, he dies at the hands of the Romans, and he says I will not turn against Christ, because He is my king who saved me. But, Polycarp was willing to be law abiding, to be a good citizen. And so this is the tension that begins to unfold.
HH: I love you bringing up Polycarp. My law school roommate, Tim Butler’s father, always prayed to him, because no one knew about Polycarp. It was like his own private saint. But he is the first martyr, right? He’s a big deal.
KC: Well, he’s one of the first. Actually, Steven was the first martyr.
HH: Oh, you’re right, yeah.
KC: But Polycarp was a bishop who was very famous and very successful in Western Asia Minor, in Turkey, modern day Turkey. And he was attacked because of his faith, and he was brought into an audience of the population, in front of the magistrate. And he was asked to recant, and he would not recant. Someone who lived not long after him, a man named Justin, called the martyr, converted to Christianity because of the courage, the bravery of these people, in the Coliseum, in the Circus, the fact that they were willing to die for their faith. So this is part of the transformation of the Christian faith into a larger movement – their conviction, their willingness to die for Christ.
HH: Now Dr. Arnn, there’s also a question of statesmanship bound up here, for the Roman side. The Christians are accused not only of impiety, but of treason, cannibalism, the whole Eucharistic doctrine got mixed up with that. And the early Jewish authorities in the Sanhedrin came to a decision hey, if it’s of God, it will not go away. And if it isn’t of God, it will go away. And so they left the early Christians alone in Jerusalem after the original crucifixion. The Romans decided to persecute them. And of course, throughout history, we find where sects are persecuted, and the result is they grow. What does, over at the School of Statesmanship, what do they teach about that problem?
LA: Well, that problem is unique to Christianity. Christianity, to understand how radical and different Christianity is, on the one hand, like the Jews, the Christians are laboring under a command not to worship their God as one member of the Pantheon. That breaks the Roman system. They’re in rebellion to that extent. When Jesus says, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s,” Caesar was the one who was in power to decide which was which. Now they’re saying they do. On the other hand, Jesus is not a competitor with them in the way that, say, Moses is with Caesar, not a competitor with Caesar, with a system of law and governance and rule. And nobody had ever seen anything like that before. They thought it had to be rebellious, because gods always give laws and set up structures of governance. And if you don’t join the Pantheon, you’re in rebellion. And first of all, people should understand they were in rebellion as far as that statement from the book of Matthew goes, because we’re not going to let Caesar tell us what belongs to God, but in another sense, not at all in rebellion, because we can obey the Roman law if the Romans will respect our right to worship. And that means that the challenge was fundamental, but it didn’t go everywhere. It wasn’t of a limitless scope.
HH: And so the statesmen ought to have taken that deal. The Romans ought to have taken that deal, right?
LA: Yeah, and eventually, they sort of did, but you know, our argument here, my argument and many of my colleagues is the adoption of Christianity by Emperor Constantine was actually not exactly the right solution to make it an official religion. The founders of America thought that Christianity requires freedom of religion. That is, you don’t have to adopt it. Let everybody worship as they please. Christianity will flourish in such a regime as it has done here in the United States better than in other Western countries, at least, although it’s not as strong as, in my opinion, it ought to be.
HH: Now Dr. Calvert, the Romans were both very good persecutors, but not very disciplined ones. They would sporadically persecute the Christians. And one of the worst was Claudius, who gets a good rap, because he had a nice PBS show and a couple of good books by Robert Graves. But it would, somehow, it actually helped, right? Is that your position, that the persecution formed by fire the early Church?
KC: Right. Early on, persecution was decidedly local. It depended upon the local governors, the local magistrates. It also depended upon how public and how visible Christianity was in a particular region. So in the early years, persecution was local and it was sporadic. Remember, as I said, the Christians were law abiding, so many of these magistrates figured why would I go after a law abiding citizen? But really, at the core of it, they could not worship the gods. And we have to remember that in the ancient world, the will of the gods, the good will of the gods, led to good things. And if you did not pray to them, sacrifice to them, then the community was in threat. And so there was this consistent problem. And yes, Christianity grew because it was persecuted.
HH: Let’s take a pause. I’ll be right back with Dr. Calvert and Dr. Arnn of Hillsdale College as we continue with a look at the early Christian teaching and writing in our march through Western Civilization.
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HH: Dr. Calvert, I’m curious as you put on your headmaster hat for a second…
HH: How hard is it at Hillsdale Academy, and how do you go about bringing Western Civilization to the objective view of your students that they understand there were competitions here, and that the Christians had to make arguments, and they weren’t, they were not submitting to the emperor in the way that the emperor needed?
KC: Right. As a headmaster, I teach 9th grade history. And understand that Hillsdale Academy is essentially the mission of Hillsdale College in the K-12 zone, in the K-12 arena. We assist schools across the nation, both charter and private schools across the nation. And what we try to get across to students when we’re teaching early Christianity is that yes, Jesus taught in the beginning that His kingdom was not of this world. And so the early Christian movement understood itself to be as a leaven, as an element within the society that was bringing God’s grace to the society. And it was in conflict with that society. What’s interesting in persecution is that the Christians often argued, listen, we pray for the emperor. We pray for him. It’s not that we hate the emperor. And in fact, our prayers are more effective than those of those who worship the gods of the empire. And over time, as the Christians proved their worth, both through persecution as well as through law abiding lives, as well as through emphasizing this idea of listen, we are really citizens, they began to get greater traction.
HH: Because the difficulty is to teach that the state does have a right to call upon you for essential loyalty, Larry Arnn. And until states made that accommodation that the framers developed, they could never solve this problem. This is what wracked England for hundreds of years after the Reformation.
LA: Yeah, think of the wars of the Reformation all over Europe, and then in England, you know, the nobility of England basically killed each other off for 150 years. And that was the question. And it was doctrinal matters that the founders of America decided to leave to private conscience, which they understood to be in accordance with Christ’s teaching.
HH: You know, I have spent time this week with Albert Mohler of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and with lawyers from Alliance Defending Freedom, talking about a New Mexico state Supreme Court case that obliged a Christian photographer to pay attorney fees and submit to the law of the Human Rights law in New Mexico, which obliged her to photograph same sex commitment ceremonies. And this raises profound issues for many people, that the state is now going to intrude upon people’s, you know, there’s a realignment of cultural values. And Larry Arnn, we’re into a reassessment of what free exercise means. Establishment, we’ve got down. But we are really going to have to figure out free exercise now.
LA: Well, it becomes the establishment of something else in an age where we have much more comprehensive government than we have known in the liberal era, that is to say in modern politics, since the thriving of England. The state reaches places it didn’t go, and so you see why antiestablishment could become the suppression of free exercise.
HH: Very, very quickly. Dr. Calvert, the other problem is not just that you’ve got the Romans throwing you in to the Coliseum, but you’ve got heretics, and not a few of them.
HH: I mean, they’re everywhere, and with good reason. They’ve got a bunch of books, and you haven’t got Peter and Paul in every place, and you haven’t got Polycarp or Justin, or some smart guys running around. A few lucky people get someone like Irenaeus…
HH: But what happens?
KC: Well, what happens here is that in many periods of this time between the beginnings to the 320s, and even beyond that, you can say that there are probably more heretics than there are orthodox Christians in the empire. Gnosticism was very powerful through this period. And really, heresy comes down to the debate over who is Jesus, and what did He mean, was He fully human, was He fully divine, was He both? And it’s in this context that you have the development of bishops, of those men who are learned, and by the way, learned not only in the Scriptures, but also beginning to be very much learned in the classical liberal arts, in the tradition of the Greeks and Romans, using philosophical language to battle against these heresies. In addition to the work of the bishops, and because of the work of the bishops, you have the development of creeds. And credo simply means I believe. And what the creeds were, were essential packets of Biblical or orthodox doctrine that in an illiterate world could be used by the everyday believer to memorize, and then to measure what they’re being taught by heretics or by others using those creeds to measure what’s being said against orthodox thought.
HH: And it’s interesting in every Roman Catholic Mass around the world every week, and every day, the Nicene Creed is recited, sometimes the Apostle Creed is substituted for that purpose of making sure that everybody gets at least the basic stuff down. And when were the basic creeds, and the Nicene Creed is many years in the future. But when were the basic creeds down, Dr. Calvert?
KC: Well, you can find portions of creeds all through the New Testament. For instance, in the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.” That is a creedal statement that was memorized by the early Church. But you find by, say, the 2nd Century, the 180s, or into the 3rd Century, the 200s, the development of the essential Apostle’s Creed. The tradition is that the apostles all helped to write that creed. That would be difficult to defend, because really, the elements of that creed came much later. But in it is the essential Biblical or orthodox construct or outline of belief for the Christians.
HH: Now the most persistent of many heresies were those that categorized themselves as gnostic.
HH: And in fact, they’re still around. The 5th Gospel, Thomas, the first time I sat down to interview an author of a big bestseller book was 20 years ago, and it was James Redfield, I think, who wrote The Celestine Prophecies. And I read it, and I said oh, my gosh, this is just Gnosticism. What is it? And why is it so appealing that it endures as long as Christianity has?
KC: Right, well, what’s interesting about Gnosticism is that it’s dualistic. It separates the human person into two parts. It separates all of Creation into two parts, into the spiritual and the physical, the physical being absolutely evil, and the spiritual being good. And we find this often in human thought, in human life. You find this in Plato. And actually, that’s where Gnosticism is rooted, in much of the Greco-Roman philosophies. It also throws in some Christianity and some Judaism. But Gnosticism is essentially this dualistic system of escape from the material world, which actually is quite the opposite of orthodox Christianity, the greatest evidence being the incarnation of Christ. Christ came into the world to show that the material world was valuable, and was loved by God. Gnosticism teaches just the opposite.
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HH: You know, I didn’t do my Radio 101, Dr. Arnn. Why does a college have a prep school?
LA: Well, we’re in the teaching business, and once you figure it out, you might be able to do it at more than one level. And also, we have self-interests. It’s better if the students who come to Hillsdale College already know how to read.
HH: You know, has any donor ever offered to establish a Larry Arnn chair in rhetoric, because you know, there are some dark arts involved in rhetoric, including the ability to scold. And so I’m appealing to a donor out there to fund the Arnn chair in rhetoric, or rhetorical skills. It’s like in the Potter books, there’s the dark arts professorship that can never be successfully filled. Have you read those, Arnn, by the way?
LA: Oh, yeah. Well, I’ve read many of them. My daughters made me read them.
HH: Well, you should. Most of your students arriving…how about you, Dr. Calvert?
HH: Have you read the Potter…and good or bad, do you think?
KC: Well, I don’t think…
KC: Yeah, they’re both, exactly. Maybe not great literature, but they’re great stories.
HH: Good stories. Now I also have to ask about the Gnostics.
HH: Listening at this moment is David Mamet, America’s great playwright. I don’t know if he’s been a guest at the college, yet, Dr. Arnn. Has he?
LA: He has, yes.
HH: Yeah, I would have assumed. And in his book, The Secret Knowledge, which is a magnificent book, he ends up by saying there is no secret knowledge. But there is secret knowledge, isn’t there, Larry Arnn?
LA: Well, there’s refined knowledge that refined souls can gather, and there are great secrets there, only because you have to work a long time to get to them, and most people don’t. So they’re a very important knowledge like that.
HH: But that’s different from Gnosticism.
LA: Yeah, it is. And see, if you look at these heresies, remember this. We’re trying to work, the Christians are trying to work out a different account of God. The classical God is at the pinnacle of nature, and an extrapolation from the scene, things you can see in nature. And in the end, God can’t move, because if He moved, that would prove that He was capable of decay or improvement, therefore, imperfect. God can’t be anything but thought, because matter is imperfect. And God can’t really be thought of anything except Himself, because a lower thought would be an imperfection. So Aristotle’s god is the unmoved mover. The Christian God is very different, because He sent His Son, and he has parts. So how are we going to understand those parts? And the area in the heresy has something to do with that, because the account that emerges, and this has to be worked out, because what we’ve got is Jesus Christ making revelations in the Bible, and we have apostles reflecting on them, what are these parts? And there seem to be three parts named. One part is God, the Father, and God, the Son, and God, the Holy Spirit, right? And this Holy Spirit comes in the book of Acts, for example. So this God, they decide, they figure out, and it takes time and thought, this God has three parts always there, eternally. And because there are three parts, they can have a relationship with each other. So God can become A) an activity, and B) the activity of love. And people should understand if they practice the Christian faith, or if they’re interested in it, that’s an amazing account of God. And this is being worked out by these people who are under threat of torture and execution, and standing up for this while they go, and they’re meeting arguments about how foolish is the idea that God could be embodied in a person. How foolish is the idea that God could have parts, or could move in our direction. And so the work that was done in sorting out these heresies is a great intellectual achievement, believe it or not.
HH: Believe it or not. How long does this process take, Dr. Calvert?
KC: Well, actually, we’re dealing with heresies even in the modern day. There’s always the need to reassert orthodox and Biblical doctrine. But in the ancient world, you really began to see it from the beginning with the apostles at Jerusalem in the book of Acts. And the most important of the councils of the time in which bishops got together to discuss these important doctrines was at Nicaea in 325, a council called together by Constantine, the emperor Constantine.
HH: Now before we get there, though, although we’ll come back after break and talk in our last segment, I don’t think we’re going to get to Constantine today. I think we’re going to get to him next week. We’ll get up to 325 today.
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HH: Dr. Calvert, the Academy, does it have boarding capacity, this is a last question I didn’t ask.
KC: Right. No, sir, it is a day school, and we have 194 students drawn from the counties around us. We’ve had some families move into Hillsdale from out of state, but our mission is not only to teach here in Hillsdale, but also to encourage the establishment of schools across the nation, both private and charter schools that are dedicated to classical and traditional education, and to the establishment of good, patriotic citizens.
HH: And certainly, Dr. Arnn, one of the reason we’re doing the Hillsdale Dialogues is our hope that home schooling parents across the United States will make use of these conversations in a structured way to advance their efforts, and also, academies across the United States. I’m sure you’re trying to churn out good curriculum on a variety of fronts.
LA: We’ve opened, I can never keep up with the number, I’m pretty sure we’ve opened now five charter schools operating today, and there should be nine next year. And then there are various private schools around the country that use the Hillsdale College model, and to them, and to home schoolers, we offer online tools, but nothing so great as the Hillsdale Dialogues.
HH: Nothing so great, and I would encourage, though, this is the third appeal to donors, I need someone to build Larry a chapel, and that’s a lot of money.
LA: Very good. Please.
HH: Very good. That’s number one. We need Sydney Poitier to build you a chapel from Lilies of the Field. Then we need the Arnn chair in rhetoric and the dark arts to be established, but then we need people to make sure that Hillsdale Academy is funded fully so it can go out and reclaim American education, alongside of many other great education innovators out there. All right, last segment, I’ve got to get us at least to Constantine. So Dr. Calvert, the early Church has got some friends. You pointed out to me Emperor Philip the Arab? He kind of liked them.
KC: Yes, he did.
HH: But they’ve got some big enemies, right?
KC: Right, and it’s interesting you mention Philip the Arab, was emperor from 244 to 249. At one point in his imperial period in his reign, he went to church in Antioch. And Eusebius, the historian, makes a big deal out of this. He goes to church in Antioch, and so there’s a big debate over, as to whether Philip was a Christian. Probably not, because at the very end of his reign, he began to persecute the Christians. And so what about this apparent conflict here within Philip? Well, he is attempting to consolidate his power, and so he brings powerful Christians into his group, but he also realizes that the Christians are not popular, not popular enough, and so he turns around and persecutes them. And within the next two decades, the largest, most serious persecutions of the Christians on an empire-wide basis, not just local, but we’re talking empire-wide basis, takes place. And this is both a great challenge to the Christians, because many of them had begun to become soft, and become used to a peaceful life. But it also helped to give new life, another surge of life to Christianity in its life in the empire.
HH: And also, it lays the groundwork for the doctors, the first great doctors of the Church to emerge. And what do we mean by that term, Dr. Calvert?
KC: Well, what we mean by that, particularly at Alexandria, you have people like Origen, and Clement, and then eventually, a man named Athanasius. And these were great Christian thinkers who helped to establish a school of Christian thought, of catechetical thought at Alexandria, which was not exclusive to Christians. Non-Christians could also study there. And it became part of this great intellectual tradition at Alexandria. And these men began to be soaked not only, of course, in Christian Scripture and Christian thought, but as many of them said, they began to use the gold, use that which was valuable among the non-Christians, and use it for the defense of the Christian faith. And so these great Christian doctors began to make the argument.
HH: And Dr. Arnn, it is always present on the minds of people who know their history that as Syria convulses, and Egypt convulses, that was the place where Christian got its doctrine sort of organized, out of the Middle East.
LA: That’s right, and you know, it’s also true that many of the classical texts were preserved by Arab scholars, and we wouldn’t have them if that hadn’t happened. And that means one can look back to a time even in Islam where the picture is not as it is today.
HH: And so, now Dr. Calvert, is someone wants to serve, have a handy history of early Christian apologetics and doctrinal work, give to me by my friend, Dr. Mark Roberts, that has it nicely organized for laymen, but what, next week, we’ll return to the greats. But what would you suggest people read? And how do they access this learning if they’re just your average Joe, or mom and dad is teaching at home school. What should they know?
KC: Well, there are a variety of texts out there that you could use. Henry Chadwick wrote a very nice book called The Early Christian Church, which is published by Penguin Press. It’s a very, very nice survey of early Christianity, and would be a good place to start. There’s a very good collection of primary documents entitled A New Eusebius, by Stevenson, published in England, but also available in the United States, A New Eusebius. It’s a group of primary documents. I think with these two books in hand, you would do a very good job of covering much of the early Church.
HH: And Dr. Arnn, we’ve got about a minute to the end of the episode. To your college students, as opposed to the high school parents out there, why do you direct them to this period? What do you tell them that they need to get out of this?
LA: Well, they need to, you know, we’re trying to put together an account of what is the West, and what are its primary fundamentals, which fundamentals consist often in arguments. And so this period is crucial, because Christianity became a movement in relation to the greatest empire in history, and as I say, fought, heroism, courage, sacrifice, was crucial to that, eloquence, work was crucial to that. Also, though, putting arguments together, figuring it out. And you know, anybody, one of the purposes of our college in our founding is intelligent piety. You will not have that if you don’t look at these works.
HH: And we will continue the conversation about the early Church and the great doctors of the Church and what matters next week. But you can get caught up on all of the Hillsdale Dialogues in three different places – www.hughforhillsdale.com, or there’s a button at www.hughhewitt.com, or of course, just go to www.hillsdale.edu. Many great online learning sources there as Hillsdale pushes out the excellence that is the West in any number of different ways, www.hillsdale.edu. Thank you, Dr. Calvert and Dr. Arnn. We’ll talk next week.
End of interview.