Pioneers and founders face great difficulties. Those of us who build on foundations already established may think we have troubles, but at least we have patterns or forms to follow. Imitating is easier than creating. Traveling a road is easier than blazing a trail. In spite of the difficulties, various saints are called by God to venture into areas where none have ventured before.
Of such a calling was Eusebius, an early church father. Eusebius, whose dates are ca. 260 to 340, wrote, taught, and preached extensively. However, he is primarily remembered today for his work Ekklesiatices Historias, which we usually call either Ecclesiastical History or Church History. His labors to compile the records and collate the details of the first several centuries of church history earned him the title “The Father of Church History.” His ecclesiastical classic covers the time from the apostles up through the age of Constantine. The first three centuries in which Christianity was born and began spreading is a marvelous story of the success of the church. Quite often, the successes were, as Herbert Schlossberg describes in Idols for Destruction, “a series of victories disguised as defeat.”
There are certainly numerous volumes of church histories available today that are more thorough, accurate, and certainly more up-to-date than Eusebius. The great German-American Philip Schaff compiled a history of some eight volumes in the 19th century that remains in print. Schaff was an evangelical believer and a first rate scholar, whose work included the latest and greatest scholarship of his time. His history covers more time and covers it more accurately than Eusebius’ history. Schaff’s research and writing earned him the title “Father of American Church History.” In the academic iron-sharpening-iron process, even the valuable works of Schaff can be supplemented with better scholarship and more insight.
An exhaustive bibliography of books on church history would be beyond the comprehension of even so rapacious a book collector as me. Studies just on the early church, that is, on the same time period that Eusebius covered, still entails the listing of thousands of books. In the many black holes of historical and theological ignorance that characterize my frustrated life, knowledge of the early church is one of the greatest of my own deficiencies. Just a few years back I would have thought that the word patristics referred to an exercise program. While I now know the term refers to the early church fathers, I am still laboring to learn just who these church fathers are.
My reading on the church history has often entailed skimming the first 15 centuries and then getting serious when Luther and Calvin appear. Portions of the latter Medieval period were viewed in light of how they paved the way for the much-needed Protestant Reformation. The story of the church after the Book of Acts and in the centuries shortly following was sorely neglected. Still several valuable resources have emerged. Henry Chadwick’s The Early Church is reckoned as a valuable book on this time period. N.R. Needham’s two volumes on the early and Medieval church are both noteworthy for their emphasis on the main theologians and ideas found in the early church. My two most often referenced works on church history are Bruce Shelley’s highly readable Church History in Plain Language and Justo Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity. These works along with another two or three dozen books, many of which are unread, constitute my main library of books on the early church. Add to that my recently obtained collection of the 38-volume Early Church Fathers set. I can have much wisdom near me, even if I have far too little in me.
So, surrounded by so great a cloud of recent scholarship and books hot off the presses, why read Eusebius? After all, he operated with limited resources; he made many mistakes; some of the sources he used were flawed; and his style and organization beg for severe editing.
Something is to be said for going to the sources. Modern scholars have studied Origen and know a lot about Constantine. Eusebius studied under Origen and personally knew Constantine. Many Christians find reading accounts of the martyrs of the early church inspiring. Eusebius personally knew fellow Christians who were martyred in the early church. There is a freshness to reading an original work, even in translation. We look at Eusebius’ account from a perspective where we know of the ultimate triumph of the early church over its enemies. We are evidence nearly 1700 years after Eusebius that the faith continues and grows. Eusebius writes with an assurance of victory that is based on faith and not on evidence. The witness, who from the trenches sees the triumph amidst the smoke and haze of battle, can be quite compelling. Eusebius’ account of the early church sheds light on many theological issues. Among these are his discussion of the church’s recognition of the canon of New Testament Scriptures, the power of the testimony of the martyrs, and the favorable change that Constantine ushered in with the Edict of Milan in 312.
The canon of Scripture has been the center of battle in the past several centuries just as it was in the early centuries. The parameters of the battle have changed, but part of contending for the faith entails contending for the centrality of Scripture. In recent times, particularly since the rise of the higher critical movement in the 19th century, Scripture has been put in the dock and judged by theologians and scholars. In contrast to the faithful, who submit to the authority of Scripture, the higher critics pronounce judgments on the Word of God. Their beginning presupposition is that whatever else a portion of the Bible might be, it is not a revelation from God. Accepting that on faith, they have then proceeded to analyze (or psycho-analyze) authors, determine the dates of composition, and accept or reject the theological content with frenzied abandon. The Bible has been demythologized, humanized, deconstructed, psychoanalyzed, feminized, and subjected to every variety of modern apostate thought available.
The struggle in the early church was different. Some, perhaps many, of the early church fathers differed over whether particular books should be included, like John’s Revelation, or whether they should be excluded, like Clement’s letters. But they did not reject the belief that a revelation from God did exist. Dan Brown has gotten rich off his doubly fictional screed casting doubt on the development of Scripture and Christology in his best-selling The Da Vinci Code. But the early church was much more Berean and careful in discerning the will of God concerning the canon. And it must be made clear that they were recognizing what constituted the Word of God rather than determining what was the true rule of faith.
This struggle for the canon of Scripture necessarily entailed a separation between orthodox thought and heresy. The church then strove to find the truth. R.J. Rushdoony, in his excellent study of the early church, The Foundations of Social Order, points out a key difference between the early church and the modern church: “First, the early councils had as their primary purpose the defense and establishment of truth, not unity. Unity had to be established on the foundation of truth, not truth as a product of unity” (p. 19). Spurious books and heretical doctrines were an ever-threatening danger to the future of the church. Providentially, God preserved the truth. One of the key ways He did so was by bringing the early church to a recognition of what constituted the New Testament.
Testimony of the Martyrs
American Christianity is above all else comfortable. We are comfortable in our padded pews in air-conditioned sanctuaries behind our stained glass windows. Most of us are middle class; we have enjoyed easy access to the great American lifestyle; and our Christian faith has been relatively easily acquired and maintained. For these reasons, we need large doses of tales of martyrs and missionaries. Since we are hindered from Sunday worship by staying up too late on Saturday night, we need to read of those hindered from worship by chains and tortures.
Eusebius recounts the sufferings of Christians in Gaul and other parts of the Roman Empire. Some of the stories of martyrdom, like that of Polycarp, are quite famous. Others less so. At the heart of this persecution was the Roman state, which was humanistic, polytheistic, and fickle. Christians died not for simply following Christ, but for refusing to also bow the knee to Caesar. We live in a time that exalts tolerance, compromise, and polytheism, so here again, we need Eusebius.
Constantine’s issuing of the Edict of Milan signaled a change in the treatment the church received. Christians have differing views on both Constantine as a professing Christian and on his policy toward Christianity. Some view him as the model of a Christian emperor and accept his testimony as indicating a true faith. Some think his edict opened the doors of the church to worldly people and ideas. A textbook for Christian schools states, “The church of the saints and martyrs had conquered the Roman Empire, but now the Roman Empire conquered the church and institutionalized Christianity.”
Eusebius is the source for a much more favorable view toward Constantine. In fact, the latter part of his history is a panegyric to Constantine. Eusebius became, in effect, a court historian and close associate with the Emperor. His close association with Constantine neither proves nor disproves the overall effects of Constantine’s faith and rule. But it is critical to see how a believer who saw the effects of persecution firsthand reacts when the emperor becomes a professing believer.
C.S. Lewis makes the case that reading old books makes us aware of ideas and perspectives that we are blinded to in our own age. When we talk about what modern Christians need or what the church today needs, we provide endless answers and directions. Eusebius will not provide us a model to direct our next presbytery meeting or church planting effort, but he will give us much insight and encouragement. We will see how the church has grown, but also how it has, in some ways, regressed. Eusebius blazed a trail by committing the story of the church to writing. Once a trail is blazed, it goes both ways. Whenever we seek to move ahead, we need to consider looking back as well.
Ben House is the author of Punic Wars & Culture Wars: Christian Essays on History and Teaching and the the editor of HouseBlog.