“Because we have the Bible so easily available to us (even on our phones!) and in so many different versions, I fear we sometimes take it for granted. I know I do. I would like to cultivate the reverence and awe for scripture that is apparent in so many early Christian authors.”
This statement by Robert Winn, the author of Christianity in the Roman Empire: Key Figures, Beliefs, and Practices of the Early Church (AD 100-300), is the perfect introduction to this exclusive Q&A. As a Professor of History at Northwestern College (Orange City, Iowa), Dr. Winn offers us his perspective on the history of Christianity from the first century to the years before Constantine in Christianity in the Roman Empire. Captured in his thoughtful answers to our questions—as well as his skilled explication of controversial topics (such as persecution and biblical interpretation), figures of the time (such as Perpetua and Felicity, and Justin Martyr), and engaging discussion questions—is his captivating ability to provide the reader with a deeper appreciation for the early Christians. In the following conversation, as well as his book, you will learn about their struggle in the face of cultural and societal pressures to build the faith community we have today. Enjoy!
1. How did you first become interested in early Christianity?
My undergraduate advisor at Cedarville College, James McGoldrick, was a Reformation scholar who had a keen interest in ancient and medieval Christianity as well. He got me interested in the history of the early Church. I grew up in a church tradition that did not put much emphasis on church history or historical theology, so I was fascinated by learning about Christians from the ancient and medieval worlds and reading what they wrote. I liked it so much I went on to do graduate study in history of Late Antiquity and early Christianity, and to this day my research and writing focuses on these topics.
2. Where did you first notice a need for a book like Christianity in the Roman Empire—designed for adults in small groups rather than students or individual readers?
Family members have been telling me for years that I should write a book on early Christianity that could be used in a context like an adult Sunday school class, so it has been on my mind for a while. A few years ago I did some looking around and realized that, while there are many good books on early Christianity, there was no book quite like I had in mind: a book that focused on the people, beliefs, and practices of Christianity before Constantine and that had short chapters with discussion questions.
3. Chapter two discusses the Didache, which talks about the Christian lifestyle and the non-Christian lifestyle as two distinct ways of living with no overlap. What differences do you see between this and the way twenty-first century Christians view living as a Christian or a non-Christian?
As I say in Christianity in the Roman Empire, the “way of life and the way of death” language in the Didache, and other writings, seems to have been a common way for Christians around the year 100 to clarify their religious identity. I think what is fascinating about this binary coding of lifestyle is that it is something that every new generation of Christians has to negotiate. For example, I point out that in texts like the Didache magic or sorcery is associated with the way of death. Today, most Christians in the western world give little thought to avoiding sorcery in their daily lives. What is the “sorcery” that perhaps Christians should give careful thought to today? In the book, one of the discussion questions I asked is whether obsession with technology has become the sorcery of the 21st century.
4. Do you think more Christians today could benefit from being more intentional about the physical aspects of prayer (facing a specific direction, kneeling or standing depending on what they’re praying about) as Origen recommends in On Prayer, discussed in chapter 14?
I think anything that makes Christians more intentional about prayer would be a good thing. So yes, if following the advice of Origen and changing postures helps a believer to focus then that would be a good thing. I think the thing to take away from Origen’s discussion of prayer, and indeed other discussions of prayer throughout the ancient and medieval period, is that Christians across the centuries have taken prayer very seriously and have suggested that prayer is not just about the mind or heart but also about the body.
5. If you were to incorporate one early Christian practice into your own life, what would it be?
Along with their intentionality about prayer, I also appreciate that Christians of the early centuries had such a high view of scripture and were devoted to reflecting on even the most obscure parts of it. Because we have the Bible so easily available to us (even on our phones!) and in so many different versions, I fear we sometimes take it for granted. I know I do. I would like to cultivate the reverence and awe for scripture that is apparent in so many early Christian authors.
6. Which early Christian figure in this book have you learned the most from?
That’s hard to answer. I am a historian, so I feel some affinity with Eusebius of Caesarea, the church historian whom I discuss in the last chapter of the book. I have also always found reading Origen stimulating: he was such a creative thinker who was willing to take on difficult theological questions. Later generations of Christians would come to disagree with some of the theological positions he took, but, in his own context, Origen was a Christian who desired to be faithful while addressing the challenging questions scripture provoked about God and his work in the world.
7. Why only cover the first few centuries of Christianity?
After Constantine (c. 300), it was easy to be a Christian and eventually the Roman state made it difficult not to be a Christian. This dramatically changed the nature of Christianity. My book accounts for that early period when it was still hard to be a Christian. I devote about a third of the book specifically to persecution and hostility to Christians, but, in the other two sections, I also describe how Christians thought about their faith and practice during those difficult times. There is certainly much to learn from other periods of church history, but this formative period, when Christians were shaping the faith for centuries to come in the midst of opposition, deserves the singular treatment I give it in this book.
8. Anything in particular readers should focus on while reading your book?
One thing I did in this book is to quote extensively from the early Christian writers. I would hope that readers would spend the time to read these passages, and, perhaps, develop enough interest to read more. There are so many ways, both in print and online, to access the writings of early Christians.
9. What was your favorite part of writing Christianity in the Roman Empire?
Most of my writing has been for a more academic audience. I found it enjoyable to write something intended for a much wider audience. It was liberating in a sense, and I hope to do more writing like this in the future.
Robert E. Winn is a Professor of History at Northwestern College (Orange City, Iowa) and the author of Eusebius of Emesa: Church and Theology in the Mid-Fourth Century.
For more information about Christianity in the Roman Empire, visit our website. Also keep your eyes peeled for a special blog post written by Robert Winn in the near future!