Within a few paragraphs the perspicacious reader of this “new” history of early Christianity will sense that here is another recycling of old and tired clichés that are predictable in popular histories of Christianity. The tip offs are the buzzword diversity and the villain, the oppressive “institutional” Church. We are expected to be “startled” that Christian doctrine is not fixed and unchanging, that different forms of Christianity existed in the early years, that early Christians disagreed with each other and engaged in debate, that a body of orthodox teaching did not emerge full blown but was given formulation over time, and that politics played a part.
Although Freeman has apparently read widely, his prejudices trump understanding. To wit: The great debate for two generations following the Council of Nicaea merits the epithet “The Stifling of Christian Diversity.” One can’t but wonder what Freeman has been reading when he makes the ridiculous assertion that “histories of Christian doctrine” still talk about the Nicene Creed as though it had “floated down from heaven.” But the real difficulty of this book is not the lack of learning or insight; it is Freeman’s inability to imagine anything so extraordinary coming from religious people (who believed certain things were true!) as the transformation of the ancient world and the building of a vibrant new civilization. One could hardly expect otherwise from someone whose previous book was entitled The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason.