The catastrophe that befell western Europe in the fifth and sixth centuries of the Christian era is beyond the experience of almost anyone living in the modern world, except perhaps the victims of the Pol Pot calamity in Cambodia, or of the periodic tribal and religious slaughters of central and east Africa. But it is not beyond our fantasy and imagination. The attempts of fiction writers, movie-makers and scientists to envision the depredation of a full-scale nuclear conflict give us some sense of what must have happened so many years ago.
To perceive the reality of those two calamitous centuries, we must imagine beautiful and sophisticated cities reduced to virtual ghost towns, magnificent buildings stripped of everything movable and standing like spectral witnesses above paved streets devoid of all human life. We must see whole counties, once lush with vineyards, gardens or waving grain, now returned to wilderness, their drained fields once again marshland, their barns charred ruins, the people fled. We must see bridges crumbling and collapsing, roads cracked and overgrown, magnificent aqueducts deliberately smashed to cut off the water supply to besieged cities, every facet of civilized life gone and replaced by a scene of utter prostration. To restore what is lost will require fourteen centuries of human endeavor. Such is the story that unfolds in this volume.
But there is another story as well. For while the Christian West was enduring the horrors of the barbarian invasions, a very different dynamic was unfolding, largely in the Christian East. It too was cataclysmic. In these same two centuries, the Christians produced their answer to the question that had perplexed them from the beginning: Who was, or is, Jesus Christ? For more than 125 years of bitter, sometimes violent argument, they debated all the answers they could think of, and finally came down to the only one that seemed to satisfy all the questions. Jesus Christ, they agreed, is “perfect God and perfect man, of reasoning soul and human flesh subsisting.” The words are from the creed named for, although not written by, the man who stood against the world in this controversy and won: Athanasius of Alexandria, whose victorious struggle is described in this volume’s first two chapters.
It is important to realize that what Athanasius established in the fourth century, and his successors safeguarded in the fifth, was the view of Jesus Christ that is still embraced today by almost all Christians–Catholic and Orthodox, Protestant and Evangelical. The decisions of the councils of Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon were endorsed by both Luther and Calvin, as they are endorsed today by spokesmen for nearly all major churches.
Such was the Christian conviction carried into the charred ruins of the West. There it would lay the foundation of a new civilization that would arise from the ashes of the old, and over the coming centuries, would create the world we live in today.
To read any of the stories contained in Volume Four of The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years click on its title on the menu to the right. If you prefer to experience the stories beautifully laid out in print with hundreds of magnificent illustrations of the period then we encourage you to support this project by ordering the book from The Christians website.