BY RAMSEY DELANO
W hen I signed up for History 3: The Byzantine Empire, my last lower division class on the tail end of a long journey in the History Department, I expected to get in and out with relatively little intellectual strain. I didn’t really have a strong conception of what a Byzantine was, just that this class existed far outside my normal field of 20th century East Asia.
The Byzantine turned out to be the Roman Empire, Part II. Though I considered myself interested in every area of history, and despite my having become a Christian three years ago, I had yet to study early Christian history. In section, we discussed prominent Christian writers, turning the critical eyes of an academic upon the works of men like Eusebius, an influential polemic and the Bishop of Caesarea. Apart from early Christian thought, we also covered the spread of Christianity during the Byzantine. My professor offered the perspective that Christianity flourished because it became a protected and then “official” state religion of the empire with perks being afforded to those who converted. I also learned about the different rivaling doctrines of the time, the two main types being Nicene and Arian Christianity, and how politics in the Byzantine determined which views became supported or persecuted.
Though I knew that the Bible required a lot of interpretation, I intentionally ignored how big of a role these bureaucrats and theologians played in deciding which interpretations of scripture would become widely held. As I sat through these lectures, I grew increasingly skeptical of these men who significantly influenced the belief system that I had come to accept as truth.
Soon this class had thrown me into a small crisis, and my mind was clouded with doubt. The perspective that the class took on Christianity, viewing it as a religion whose tenets resulted from a messy historical process, put pinpricks in what I thought was an unwavering faith in the veracity of scripture. If I held that the Bible was a divinely inspired text, a physical manifestation of God’s word and therefore ultimate truth, what did it mean for my faith that so many Byzantine men had shaped our interpretations of the Bible?
We talked about these theologians as politicians, men with their own agendas vying for power and influence. Our professor defined heretics as “the losers” and adherents to what we would consider orthodoxy as “the winners.” To think that these were the men who played a major role in determining the beliefs that I now orient my life around left me deeply unsettled.
I had been avoiding early Christian history for so long, and now that it was right in front of me, my fears about studying Christian history with an “objective” lens seemed to come to fruition. My beliefs were now seeming much more man-made than God-inspired.
However, because God is a God of mercy, he did not let me stew in my own doubt for too long. My GSI, a likable and quirky character who led us through our critical analysis of the texts, turned out to be a Christian himself. After I reattached my dropped jaw, I formed a series of desperate questions in office hours to air my doubts.
After a lengthy discussion (unperturbed by a Dwinelle fire alarm and a quick jaunt outdoors), God had repaired some of the pinpricks that had been deflating my faith. My GSI reminded me that everyone in history, whether a theologian, bishop, clergyman, or king, is human and complicated. While they may look towards heaven, as we try to do, they are also held back by an earthly agenda, as we also are. Though they may have sought to follow God’s will, it would be foolish to overlook the limiting influence of their own worldly desires. This suggested that, despite their failures, God could still have worked through them in order to deliver us his divinely inspired word.
In speaking of studying history through an “objective” lens, I need not conflate “objective” with “secular.” What I mean to say is, we don’t have to pretend we aren’t Christian when we look back in to history and therefore accept only naturalistic explanations for historical occurrences. Though our current academic environment seems to have scrubbed the influence of faith from academic inquiry, we don’t have to sacrifice our belief that history still contains the ongoing work of God’s redemptive plan.
The 21st century historian does not pretend to be free of bias, but instead approaches historical sources and problems with an honest admission of the perspectives they are bringing to the proverbial table. We understand their analysis in light of their bias. What my GSI called “the eyes of faith,” do not need to be blinded in order to analyze and write “good history.”When it comes to looking at the Bible, we should see it as what it is—both the divinely inspired word of God and a historical source that resulted from a historical process.
As I have studied the Byzantine, God has reminded me that He has always used those who are broken and flawed, and has always trusted imperfect beings with His perfect message of salvation. Where I put my faith as a believer is not in a perfect historical narrative that validates the superiority of my religion by having completely unproblematic persons put it together. No, there wouldn’t seem to be anyone in history who then could have put the Bible together.
I place my faith as a believer in God having ultimately been sovereign throughout time. I admit that this may seem to be an unsatisfactory answer, but ultimately I choose to believe that God cannot be thwarted by man, but by allowing us to choose Him or not, this granting of free will means believers and non-believers have an incredible amount of space to make mistakes.
Though shaken, God has ultimately strengthened my trust that the Bible is His Word. While debates over interpretations, translations and added or subtracted verses can rage on forever, I do believe that God has used imperfect people to deliver his perfect message. The words I read today are the exact words God intended for me to read, digest, ponder, and allow to transform my life. The Byzantine Empire certainly shaped a great deal of the beliefs I place my faith in, but understanding that history has ultimately increased my understanding of God’s word.
1. The Byzantine Empire lasted from 330 AD to 1453 AD and includes key moments in church history such as the Crusades in the 11th century.
2. Edict of Thessalonica 380 AD
Ramsey Delano is a 4th year History major and future high school teacher who enjoys long philosophical walks on the beach and listening to people’s life stories.