Review – Ivor Davidson’s Birth of the Church

The following is a book review that I wrote as a class assignment for Dr. Haykin’s Patristic and Medieval Church History class last year.

C.S. Lewis once wrote, “A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village.”
[1] In spite of this wisdom Christians often remain within their “native village” failing to travel the old and winding roads of times past. Yet, by neglecting history, the deception of “local errors” is inevitable. Christians need to visit lands of days gone by so as to gain understanding for life in the village of today.
That is why it is imperative to have good books stocking the shelves of Christian bookstores that function as trustworthy guides to the “many places” of church history. Opening and turning the pages of such books lead Christians to lands dripping with the golden honey of biblical wisdom. They are introduced to people who have triumphed through the darkest ages, who have struggled victoriously with issues that beset the church even today. Ivor J. Davidson has provided contemporary travellers with just such a guide in his book The Birth of the Church: From Jesus to Constantine AD 30-312 – Volume One.
For those wishing to traverse the lands of the Roman Empire, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and his early followers, to witness the testimony of the early Christian martyrs, to defend the church against paganism and heresy, to witness the rise of Constantine and his Christian empire, The Birth of the Church will prove a fruitful guide. And Davidson is a qualified tour-guide to the early church, both in terms of its theology and history. He is senior lecturer in systematic theology at the University of Otago in New Zealand.
One of the strengths of Davidson’s approach is demonstrated in the first half of the book. The introduction and the first five chapters deal primarily with Bible times, focusing on the life of Christ, the first disciples, the life of Paul, what it meant to be a Christian and a comparison between Old and New Israel. By providing both an historical and biblical-theological analysis, Davidson has equipped his readers with ample knowledge of the nature of Christianity and New Testament backgrounds. The progression from Biblical to post-Biblical history is logical and smooth, nestling the Biblical and patristic periods comfortably next to one another.
The final half of the book is devoted to the growth of the church after the time of the apostles, focusing on the persecution from both the hands of the Jews and the Romans, the development of theology in light of pagan errors and heresy, the nature of the Christian church in terms of structure and worship and the relationship between church and state culminating in the rise of the emperor Constantine.
Davidson does an excellent job summarising the key people and events of early church history. It is a big task as there is much to pay attention to, yet Davidson provides useful information without getting bogged down with unnecessary details. The author admits in the preface to keeping the amount of footnotes low “in order to leave the text as unencumbered as possible by technical matters.”
[2] Although he does provide further resources that are listed at the back of the book and are organised according to his chapter headings. This is helpful for those who want to go beyond just this one textbook in patristic history.
In the following pages, this reviewer will provide brief summaries of the key themes of the book. A brief analysis of each theme will follow including commendations and reservations about the overall monograph.
In the introduction as well as the first and second chapter, Davidson pays specific attention to the first followers of Jesus Christ. He compares and contrasts them with the surrounding culture, weighing their beliefs with the Jewish religion that they sprouted from, and the Roman paganism that they stood against. He notes both the Jewishness of the Christian religion, as well as the uniqueness of it. By pointing out that Jesus and his followers were Jewish, he then briefly explains the various Jewish groups that existed in their day focusing on four groups.
The first are the Pharisees, the primary religious leaders of Jesus’ day. They were concerned with the maintenance of Jewish identity by the keeping of the Torah and the Jewish traditions. The second group are the Sadducees, the aristocratic temple-keepers whose primary concern was acceptance by their Roman rulers. The third group are the separatist Essenes who were closely related to the community at Qumran on the Dead Sea. The fourth and final group Davidson focuses on were the Zealots, who were willing to maintain Jewish identity by the use of force. He provides a look at the four groups’ Messianic expectations and evaluates the similarities and dissimilarities that Jesus shared with them. He also explains how Jesus mystified the expectations of even his disciples by his death and resurrection.
After this brief reconnaissance of Palestinian Judaism, which he returns to in more detail further on in the first chapter, Davidson then provides a description of the Roman culture of Jesus’ day. He explains the rise of Rome and its transition from a republic to an empire. He mentions how they were deeply united on a number of levels, including language, the military, Roman law, economic structure, roads and seaways as well as their reverence for the emperor. A look at the social structure of Rome is given with its various class distinctions. Status was determined based upon land, with the elite upper class making up only a fraction of the population compared to the lower slave class.
Roman religion was highly pluralistic, with a god for every city, every institution and every household. At times the emperor was treated as though he were divine and emperor worship eventually became a staple of Roman life. As often happens within a pluralistic society, religious syncretism was commonplace. When Rome conquered a foreign nation, the gods of that nation were subsumed in the pantheon of Roman worship. Everything from Egyptian religion, to the Mithraism of Persia, to the mystery religions were fair game.
Davidson explains that the church, existing within this culture, was ostracised for not adhering to societal norms. The fact that Christians refused to worship the pagan gods placed them out of step with surrounding society. Every aspect of Roman life involved idolatry and by refusing to follow suit, the Christians were often left out of Roman life. This contributed to the various misconceptions about Christianity, including the suspicion that Christians were atheistic, incestuous cannibals. Throughout the rest of the book, Davidson highlights this suspicion and the responses it received from the various early church apologists.
In the latter part of the second chapter and all of chapter three focuses on the apostle Paul and his various missionary journeys throughout the empire. Following closely to the Biblical texts, especially the Book of Acts, Davidson proves the great influence that Paul had on subsequent Christianity. There is not much that Davidson adds to what is already known about Paul, therefore one with a rudimentary knowledge of the apostle could skip over this section and not miss the thrust of Davidson’s overall history. The chapter closes with Paul’s martyrdom and a brief evaluation of his life and ministry. Davidson laments the over-emphasis on Paul’s influence to the neglect of other early missionaries who have remained anonymous to history. Recounting Paul’s execution is a good segue into what this reviewer sees as Davidson’s next theme – persecution.
Although the topic of persecution is dealt with in the early chapters of the book, it is specifically focused on in the middle chapters. In the fourth, Davidson explains the distinctives of Christian belief, including forms of worship, the stress on conversion, the institutionalizing of the church, etc. He catalogues the growth of the Christian population within the empire as well as their status socially. In doing so he lays the foundation to understand the opposition that Christians faced from the pagan culture that he explains in detail in later chapters.
Similarly, chapter five deals with the differences (as well as similarities) that Christianity had with Judaism. As much as Christians such as James announced the similarities between Christianity and Judaism at the so-called “Jerusalem council,” these same Christians also explained the vast dissimilarities. If James had stressed a Christianity that was virtually indistinguishable from Judaism, why then was he martyred?
After the fall of the temple in AD 70, Judaism lost much of its power in Jerusalem. Roman authorities strengthened their grip and Jewish identity was greatly decreased. Many Jews left in the “Dispersion” and with them, many Christians were ejected. But this did not hinder nor minimalise the animosity felt by the Jewish authorities towards Christianity. Davidson does a good job in providing a balanced expose of those differences, and as in chapter four, he plants the seed to help his readers understand the persecution the Christians were to endure from the Jews.
Chapter six delves a little deeper into an understanding of the internal struggles that beset the church. Davidson gives attention to the role of heresy, defining it over and against Christian orthodoxy. In the early church an ad hoc statement was developed called “the rule of faith” that Christians used to distinguish orthodox teaching from heresy. Many groups that claimed to be Christian, such as the Gnostics and the Marcionites, did not live up to the standard of the rule of faith, and were thus rendered heretical. Davidson outlines the basic teachings of Gnosticism and of Marcion and explains why they were considered heterodox.
A curious group that developed out of Christianity were those who held to the New Prophecy, known as the Montanists. This group, which bore a strong resemblance to modern charismatic evangelicals, over-emphasised the gifts of the Spirit for the church. They were ecstatic, often taken to trances and visions, and eventually proved to be a significant problem for the catholic church. Of this group was a well-known and influential church father named Tertullian, whom Davidson explains in a subsequent chapter. Yet, it was through the rise of these various false-teachings that biblical doctrine was developed, such as the divinity of Christ in reaction to the Gnostics, or the fullness of the canon in reaction to the Marcionites.
Alongside the difficulties Christianity faced within the church, there were just as many problems coming from outside. Typically the persecution that had been experienced from the hands of the surrounding culture involved physical punishment and death. Davidson highlights the lives and deaths of men such as Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp. As well, there are the glowing testimonies of women such as Perpetua and Felicitas who suffered a terrible death, yet whose faith spurred their brethren on in the faith. These were men and women, who gladly ascended the gallows pole for the sake of Christ and his church.
Eventually intellectual persecution was to be added to the list of attacks. Pagan leaders realised that to rid the empire of the Christians, more was needed than jailing and executing them. In fact, this seemed to spur the Christians on in their faith! Instead, a systematic and logical attack on the very foundations of Christian teaching was needed. As Davidson states it, these critics were “[o]ffering implicit intellectual validation for the kinds of resentment directed at Christians at a popular level.”
In response to this, as outlined in chapter seven, a movement arose within Christianity and a group of men known as the apologists defended the faith on intellectual grounds. Such men included the first known apologist, Quadratus. As well, there were men like Justin Martyr, Tatian, Athenagoras and others who wrote various tracts and treatises answering the attacks against the faith.
One of the most significant intellectual critics was a Platonist philosopher named Celsus, who had become intimately acquainted with Christian theology. He wrote a detailed attack on Christianity in a work entitled The True Discourse. It marks the oldest known critique of Christianity and proves how well informed Celsus was. The True Discourse also set the precedent for later works critical of Christianity. It really was not until the writings of Origen a generation later that Celsus was answered in a detailed way.
Chapter eight deals with the movement of Christianity to the Latin speaking part of the empire. As Christianity moved further west, other problems arose including the tertiary issue of when to date Easter, and more significant issues such as the Monarchian heresy of Callistus, Zephyrinus and Sabellius. Although an apologist named Hippolytus in the late second century proved a formidable opponent to this aberrant view of the Godhead, it was not until Tertullian came on the scholarly scene that a more full-fledged understanding of the Trinity was explained.
Tertullian was a Montanist who held to some strange views regarding the New Prophecy, but he was also a brilliant expositor of biblical doctrine. It is to Tertullian that later Christianity owes the term Trinity (trinitas). He was one of the first Latin-speaking theologians of any influence, and though we know little about his early life, over thirty of his works are extant.
Another scholar in the west whom Davidson pays attention to is the church planting, missionary scholar Irenaeus. This bishop of Lyons is a model of well-rounded Christian theology and praxis. He wrote a devastating five-book attack on the Gnosticism of his time called Against Heresies; he was very much a missionary who went to great lengths learning not only Latin (he was from the east) but also the barbaric language of Lyons. In Irenaeus’ writings doctrines such as the unity of the canon, the incarnation, the Trinity, etc., are strongly advocated and defended. It is to men like Irenaeus and Tertullian that church history owes a great debt, in terms of their theological influences that have stood the test of time.
The ninth chapter continues to look at the spread of Christianity into the west, paying particular attention to the church in Alexandria. One of the most significant branches of the church at this time, Alexandria saw many great theologians arise within its ranks including Pantaenus, his student Clement and the controversial Origen. All three brought intellectual validation to the Christianity of their time. Of the three, Davidson pays the most attention to Origen, looking at him first as a biblical scholar, and then evaluating a number of his works including On First Principles, a massive work that appears to be an early systematic theology. The Alexandrian school was known for its emphasis of an allegorical interpretation of the text, and it is in Origen that this emphasis is clearly seen. Origen’s views became a major source of division between the east and west. The final theologian addressed by Davidson in this section is Paul of Samosata, one of the key writers who from the east who opposed Origen. Yet it was not over allegorical hermeneutics that Paul and the followers of Origen disputed, rather it was the Alexandrians’ teaching on the hypostatic union.
The final theme that appears on Davidson’s book is that of Christian ethics. Namely the nature of worship and practice within the church (chapter ten), morality (chapter eleven) and the relationship between church and state culminating in the ascension of Constantine to the emperors throne (chapter twelve).
Here Davidson provides a look into the every day life of the church, evaluating how it worked out the faith that had been delivered to it. Of particular interest are the sacramental practices of the early church, specifically the approach to baptism. Davidson points to the early recognition of infant baptism, but also notes that Tertullian was not in favour of it, preferring that adult believers were to be baptised. He also quotes from the Apostolic Tradition that explains that babies were baptised as well as adults. But it is Davidson’s belief that it is very hard to determine which form of baptism the church sanctioned, as evidence and interpretation are vague.
Davidson also explains the history of the Eucharistic ritual, relating it to the agape feast in the earliest times, and then as a separate ceremony that eventually took over from the love feasts. He also makes an interesting observation that “it was considered inappropriate to hold more than one Eucharist in a town on the same Sunday on the grounds that the communion meal symbolized the unity of believers.”
Other aspects of Christian practice are dealt with such as the day of worship (Sunday), the notion of “sacred time,” Christian art, the ordination of ministers (chapter eleven), women’s roles, discipline and the growth of Christian asceticism.
The final chapter concerns the relationship between Christian faith and its relation to politics. As time progressed the Roman Empire began to fall into problems politically and economically. Davidson notes that “from the 230s onward, the pressure would be more or less constant.” One after another, emperors came and went, bringing much confusion into political life. With the Persian Empire gaining strength and barbarian invasions in the north, many were becoming concerned with the future.
Christianity too continued to face troubles with the various philosophies that challenged it and the compromise Christians were experiencing within their ranks, offering allegiance to Caesar rather than Christ. The church was beginning to divide, especially over issues of whether to accept back into fellowship one who fled persecution. During this period, the Lord raised up Cyprian of Carthage to battle controversy such as that wrought by the Novatians, and to maintain unity in the catholic church.
At this time persecution heightened under Valerian, who placed many legal sanctions against the church. As Davidson comments, “Valerian’s measures…were generated by political and fiscal realities.” The Romans specifically sought to oppress the church by arresting Church leaders. After a brief respite after Valerian, the emperor Diocletian became emperor and thus the beginnings of what has become known as “The Great Persecution.” The pressure of persecution rose slowly but surely, and by the end of it, Diocletian had imprisoned so many Christians that there was no more room in the jails for them. When Diocletian became ill, his advisor Galerius added further hostilities to the church demanding that sacrifices to Roman gods must be made publicly.
After the death of Diocletian, Constantius became emperor. When Constantius died, the Roman legion declared his son Constantine as emperor, bypassing Severus much to the chagrin of Galerius.
A battle ensued, what has become known as The Battle of the Milvian Bridge, where Constantine triumphed over Maxentius, a pro-pagan soldier and son of Maximin who held control over the eastern provinces of the empire. It was here that Constantine claimed to have had a vision of Jesus telling him to fight under the cross of Christ. His “divine” victory ensured for Constantine the powers of the west.
At the Edict of Milan, Constantine issued a policy of tolerance to Christianity. This marked the beginning of Constantine’s official endorsement of Christianity, making it the official religion of the empire.
The key reservation that this reviewer has with Davidson’s book is a statement that he makes on pages 173-174 regarding the authorship of 2 Timothy 3:16. In the statement he brings to question whether Paul was in fact the author. Although he affirms the possibility of Pauline authorship, he does not expressly endorse it. This is a great cause for concern for obvious reasons.
Secondly, the sections dealing with women’s roles in ministry (pp. 301-309) seem to go beyond a complimentarian understanding. In attempting to stress the equality of women that wasn’t always apparent in the early church, Davidson at times makes statements that are too egalitarian for this reviewer’s tastes.
In spite of the two criticisms noted above, this reviewer believes that Davidson’s work is highly beneficial to the church and would make an excellent resource for students of early church history. It is highly recommended.
[1] C.S. Lewis, Learning in War-Time,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Essays (New York: Macmillan, 1980), 28, 29. Cited in Mark A. Noll, “‘The Clean Sea-breeze of the Centuries’: Leaning to Think Historically,” in Mark A. Noll, Nathan O. Hatch and George M. Marsden, The Search for Christian America (Westchester, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1983).
[2] Ivor J. Davidson, The Birth of the Church: From Jesus to Constantine AD 30-312 – Volume One (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004), 7.
[3] Davidson, Birth of the Church, 212.
[4] Davidson, Birth of the Church, 287.

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