Church and Empire

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Maria E. Doerfler
Ad Fontes: Early Christian Sources
  • Minneapolis, MN : 
    Augsburg Fortress
    , September
     162 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In encountering the past through extant primary sources, the modern reader is burdened with several challenges that can hamper a sufficient understanding of the broader historical paradigms present in a group of texts. Absent the proper contexts and adequate translations, such primary sources may be virtually inaccessible for all but the most learned. Despite such challenges, Church and Empire provides an excellent window into the early Christian world through a well-ordered and well-explained group of pre-sixth century works. Editor Maria Doerfler offers a useful and engaging introduction to sources included in this volume, not only contextualizing the works historically, religiously and politically, but also weaving an engaging narrative that serves to illuminate a broader historical framework for examining current interactions between the Christian Church and the twenty-first century nation-state.

After a thorough introduction, the volume proceeds linearly in four chapters, each of which represent clearly denoted phases in the development of the Christian Church within the Roman Empire. Through the employment of primary texts from sundry Patristic era civil and religious figures, Doerfler traces the movement of the Christian Church from the periphery of the Roman Empire in the first and second centuries CE, to its center in the fifth century CE. In so doing, she reveals the degree to which the Roman legal order was inverted in favor of the Church and the various ways Christianity responded to its growing prominence within the Empire.

Initially in this period, Christians were summarily called to publicly renounce their faith under pain of death (8). Such persecution led to calls for tolerance from early Christian writers, who emphasized the teachings of civil obedience present in the Christian scriptures (16). As the Church grew in social and civil standing through the official legal sanction of Christian practices in the aftermath of the Edict of Milan, it had to learn to manage its newly found power while protecting orthodox doctrine. Within the Church, the early Christian leaders had to delimit the authority of the Christian emperor, a task that was not always easy, especially when it came to preserving sound doctrine. In the civil realm, the Theodosian Code—a compilation of laws issued from Christian emperors—revealed a distinct continuity of legal practice from the Empire’s pre-Christian days. This time, however, the touchstone was Nicene Christianity. Those who were accused of heresy could have their crimes expiated by confessing their faith in the tenets of the Nicene Creed (41). In response to the growth of Christian power as exercised through civil leaders, there were then calls for toleration by those outside of the Christian faith (56). While the sources Doerfler includes do illustrate differences in practice after the ascension of the Church within the Roman Empire, what is particularly interesting is the level of continuity, although inverted, the texts reveal. This volume presents an historical framework that illustrates how Church involvement in the state can complicate the operation of both the Church and the state.

Doerfler’s selection of sources provides a keen overview of the history of the period, drawing out continuities of legal practice and alterations in Church function. The breadth of the included works allows for a succinct, yet comprehensive look at the Christian Church, and its interaction with the Roman state, over the course of its first 500 years. Given the likely conscious attempt to avoid prolixity, this volume is short and a quick read. As such, it serves as a wonderful introduction to both the Patristic era and the growth of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Functionally, Doerfler provides helpful footnotes that explain allusions and references within the text. Her footnotes are very useful and aid in this volume’s ease-of-read.

While the brevity of this work is enticing, it is helpful for the reader to remain attuned to the potential pitfalls of a broad overview of such a dynamic historical period. Inevitably, editorial discretion in the selection of sources provides an argument by virtue of what is included, commented on and excluded. Thus it is helpful to approach this volume critically, questioning the presumptions of the introduction and considering what other sources might be available to provide nuance to the historical narrative as presented.

Fortunately, Doerfler eschews overt polemics for a balanced, broad-based look at the early Christian Church’s interaction with the Roman Empire. She provides an excellent historical framework for the texts in her introduction and follows through with useful selections from the available primary sources. While every compilation of excised sources is, out of necessity, marked with the fingerprints of the editor, this work is an excellent effort in the unbiased display of primary texts from the Patristic era. Readers of this volume are treated to an easily accessible presentation of primary texts that illuminate the dynamic questions and controversies of the period.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jonathan Baddley is a recent graduate of The George Washington University Law School.

Date of Review: 
February 28, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Maria E. Doerfler is Assistant Professor of the history of Christianity in Late Antiquity at Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina. Her research focuses on the development of Christianity in its social and political context during the first six centuries of the Common Era, including a new book on intersection of Roman law and monastic and clerical formation at the turn of the fifth century.


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