The Age of Paradise: Christendom from Pentecost to the First Millennium by John Strickland is published by Ancient Faith Publishing. It is part one of a three part history that Dr. Strickland is writing. The second volume, Paradise and Utopia: Christendom from the Great Schism to the Protestant Reformation is also available. Both can purchased HERE at a discount!
Necessity trumps need. I needed to read this book a year ago. In fact, I did read the opening portion and was most impressed by it. But I suffer from Book-Stacks-itis. The common name is “Too Many Books.” So, The Age of Paradise had to wait patiently on the shelves for a more convenient time.
Then came the necessity. I am beginning a class for some home schooling students on the Early Church and Medieval Period of history. I have a perilous stack of required readings for myself and the students, but I have an even more perilous stack of helpful and interesting extra readings for myself. At the top of that list was this book.
This is a serious detailed study of Church History during the first thousand years of the Faith. Note well that the author is an Orthodox priest, so his perspective is Christian, as opposed to non-Christian or modernistic nihilistic, and Orthodox, as opposed to Protestant or Catholic.
I am all for intramural battles amongst Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox followers of Christ. There is much to debate and many gut punches to deliver, as well as strong right and left hooks. God grant that our spiritual and academic sparring will result in sanctified iron sharpening iron.
There is also the place for Christians in all traditions to sit down, shut up, and learn from those who differ from us. Most of our more Western Church Histories exclude or minimize Eastern Orthodoxy. Philip Jenkins’s remarkable book The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died is a remarkable supplement to our deficits.
John Strickland’s series is another fine supplement. This was a very intellectually and spiritually challenging work. While there were familiar stories in it for any of us who have read church history, there are angles and details that I had never heard before. Plus, Strickland has a strong focus on the ways in which Christianity was a culture building movement. It–the Faith–was not just saving souls, but was turning the world and life view of the times upside down and inside out.
Below are a few (and many more could be added) that show some of the delights of this book:
“The conversion of the world was a process that engaged the world in its entirety. Culture was part of the world, and it was called to bear the saving faith wherever the Church planted herself. Culture was therefore as much a means of evangelization as an object of it. “
“The world Christendom revealed to pagans was beautiful, and few there were who did not want to become part of it.”
“Unlike Christian lawmakers in a nihilistic modern Christendom, the Emperor Justinian was not shy about legislating morality. “
“The most powerful liturgical action there was the placing of ‘crowns of martyrdom ‘ on their heads, symbolizing the sacrificial love their marriage requires. ”
Another aspect of this book is its discussion of the different theological emphases of the East and the West. Here in the West, Augustine is the Big A-Man. His thinking has a strong dominance in both Protestant and Catholic groups. But Strickland, in the Orthodox tradition, discounts Augustine’s theology as being pessimistic. We would expand that pessimism to Luther, Calvin, and the rest of our (speaking to my Reformed chums) heroes. The emphasis on the Fall, sin, the cross, and Jesus dying for us is the Gospel. The Eastern emphasis is more on the Resurrection and the effects of salvation. I confess to cringing every time I read the word “deification” as applied to us and our salvation. I was reminded of one of many reasons why I am not Orthodox. (Other reasons include not being able to grow a long enough beard and not wanting to be even more out of step with other plain folks here in the Bible Belt South.)
It’s easy enough to find wording used and terms omitted in Orthodox theology to make a hasty conclusion that “these folks ain’t Christians.” Do I believe that there are people in the Orthodox Church who are not believers? Yes, and I would have great concerns over the claim that Vladimir Putin is a devoutly Orthodox Christian (with further doubts about the Presbyterianism of Donald Trump and the devout Catholicism of President Biden). I believe that the most solidly Reformed, Bible-centered, Evangelical group in the U.S.A. (which I have yet to find) would and could have unbelievers in the midst.
There is a place for seriously listening to the Orthodox discussion of doctrine set within a historical narrative and considering. So, along with wincing, I discovered the need to do some learning.
A final aspect of the book is fifth and sixth chapters that deal with some rough and tumble theological battles between the East and West and between Constantinople and Rome. The filoque controversy left me dizzy and light-headed. This was not a “let’s talk over coffee” discourse between a couple of pastors. “Them’s fighten’ words” was the pattern, or perhaps it was the pattern for those who omitted the fighting words.
Related to this was some pure ugly in regard to the Papacy and Papal Succession. Admittedly, this is Calvinist fodder, especially when we are thinking ahead to that great yearly celebration of Reformation Day. Trying to be charitable, I would have a hard time adhering to Catholicism after relearning some of the awful things done to and by those who were or aspired to be the Vicar of Christ.
History is almost always ugly up close. All traditions have those who bore the name of Christ-follower, but who did terrible things–in that very name.
But for the Christian, history is never concluded with the up close and ugly. The picture is far above us and far more all encompassing than our glimpses into a few chapters of a book. Christian culture, the Age of Paradise, the Kingdom of Heaven all advances in spite of the counter-moves or the opposition from without.
This is a book about victories. As Herbert Schlossberg emphasized in Idols for Destruction, Christianity is a series of victories, disguised as defeats.
This book is a fine read for the person who loves history and is a believer. It is a great resource for the history teacher and a useful book for the theologian/pastor. I really liked this volume and look forward to reading the next one.