Harvey Cox was a professor of the history of religion and philosophy at Harvard University for forty-four years, from 1965 to his retirement in 2009. I attended his speech at Arizona State University on January 28, 2016, and afterwards met and talked with him. See my post about it the next day, on January 29, 2016, entitled “Dr. Harvey Cox: Leader of Liberal Christianity.” He spoke on “The Five Changes Happening in Religion and the World Now.” Some of it was taken from his most recent book, The Future of Faith (HarperOne, 2009). I purchased copy of it then, which he autographed, and I just now finished reading it. He also accepted a copy of my most recent book, Solving the Samaritan Riddle, since it is largely about Pentecostalism which he addresses at length in his book.
In this book, Cox distinguishes three phases that have occurred mostly in the history of Christianity. The first stage he designates “The Age of Faith,” which he says characterized the first three centuries of the church. When Roman Emperor Constantine gathered together 318 bishops of the Catholic Church at the Nicene Council in 325 to settle the so-called Arian controversy, Cox says the Age of Faith ended and the second phase began, which he calls the Age of Belief, due mostly to development of a church hierarchy and this involvement with the state of the Nicene Creed.
However, later in his book the Harvard professor says of early church fathers Ignatius and Irenaeus, who lived in the second century, “Both authoritarians, they were hardly advocates of participatory democracy. . . . their influence ultimately plunged Christianity farther down the slope toward creed and hierarchy. . . . The standard textbooks credit them for strengthening the early church to fight ‘heresy’ by solidifying its hierarchical structure” (p. 92).
Thus, Cox, as I am somewhat, is anti-creedal. His church background is northern Baptist, and most Baptists have been at least non-creedal. Cox views the efforts of the church in succeeding centuries in its crafting of many creeds, which some call “doctrinal statements,” as destructive of genuine Christianity that previously had focused mostly on loving God and neighbor and focusing mostly on making Jesus Lord. Henceforth, the Roman Catholic Church did much heresy hunting as demonstrated by its Inquisition during the Middle Ages.
So, Harvey Cox follows some other historians of religion who distinguish a difference between “faith,” which he defines as a “deep-seated confidence” (p. 3), and “belief,” which he describes as “more like opinion.” I think it is difficult to so distinguish these words, but I get his point.
Cox says in 385, “A synod of bishops condemned a man named Priscillian of Avila for heresy, and by order of the emperor Maximus he and six of his followers were beheaded. . . . He was the first Christian to be executed by his fellow Christians for his religious views. But he was by no means the last. One historian estimates that in the two and a half centuries after Constantine, Christian imperial authorities put twenty-five thousand to death for their lack of creedal correctness” (pp. 6-7).
Cox says, “The Age of Belief lasted roughly fifteen hundred years” (p. 7). He explains, “The vast majority of people were illiterate and, even if they heard the priests intoning creeds in the churches, did not understand the Latin. Confidence in Christ was their primary orientation, and hope for his Kingdom their motivating drive. Most people accepted the official belief codes of the church, albeit without much thought” (pp. 7-8).
Cox shows that recent archaeological discoveries, including the Nag Hammadi gnostic scrolls in 1945, proves that early Christianity was more theologically diverse than especially the early Catholic Church had claimed. He rightly alleges that its clerical hierarchy was developed to gain control over parishioners and create a system of doctrine. He says the Church’s creation of its papacy and supposed “apostolic succession” to support it was without biblical foundation and that it stifled freedom of the spirit. Cox condemns it as “a self-justifying fiction” (p. 66).
Cox observes, “Now we stand on the threshold of a new chapter in the Christian story. Despite dire forecasts of its decline, Christianity is growing faster than it ever has before, but mainly outside the West and in movements that accent spiritual experience, discipleship, and hope; pay scant attention to creeds; and flourish without hierarchies. We are not witnessing the beginning of a ‘post-Constantinian era’” (p. 8). Cox identifies this change as the third phase in the history of Christianity, saying, “I would like to suggest we call it the ‘Age of the Spirit.’” He says this is happening partly because people are “searching for community” (p. 12). Cox says one sociologist estimates that “40 percent of all adult Americans belong to one or another of a variety of small groups both in and out of churches.” Harvey thinks this Age of the Spirit is somewhat of a return to the Age of Faith of the early Christians.
Cox’s liberalism surfaces most acutely when he addresses the idea of God raising Jesus from the dead. I mentioned this disbelief at length when I reviewed the book by agnostic scholar Bart Ehrman entitled How Jesus Became God and Geza Vermes’ book The Resurrection: Fact or Myth. Cox says of the accounts of the Jesus’ resurrection in the New Testament gospels, “The stories of the Resurrection, as hard as they are for modern ears to comprehend, mean that the life Jesus lived and the project he pursued (the Kingdom of God), did not perish at the crucifixion, but continued in the lives of those who carried on what he had begun” (p. 52).
On the contrary, those “stories” clearly are about Jesus’ disciples having several experiences during the forty days between Jesus’ resurrection and heavenly ascension in which they literally saw the risen Jesus, talked to him, ate and drank with him, and some even touched him. I maintain that these disciples eventually believed that God had indeed raised Jesus from the dead with a mortal, resurrection body and that if it is not so, there never would have been any Christianity. I say this because I am convinced that there is no other explanation that accounts for the change of mind of Jesus’ disciples–such as Peter denying him and then being the foremost preacher those early days according to Acts—going from discouragement to strong boldness in preaching that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead.
I am predominantly a futurist concerning the book of Revelation. Thus, I strongly disagree with Cox saying, “the biblical book of Revelation should be as an anti-Roman diatribe” (p. 9). This viewpoint has been adopted in recent times by many New Testament scholars, but I think it is wrong headed. They buttress this position by asserting that Revelation was authored in the 90s or later, whereas I have several reasons for believing it was authored in the 60s.
Cox seems to adopt pacifism by saying Roman Christians of the first three centuries refused military service and that this changed when Constantine made Christianity a legal religion in 318 (p. 79). Many who make this connection often omit saying that Christians were so affected by what was on the soldiers shields. Prior to that, Roman armies had names of Roman gods engraved on their shields, to which Christians objected. But from 318 on, Constantine had his soldiers engrave their shields with a cross. It was because, on the eve of the battle of the Milvian Bridge, Constantine claimed to have seen the image of a cross in the sky with the caption, “in this sign conquer.” Constantine’s mother Helena was a devout Christian.
Cox does well in claiming that the words orthodoxy and heresy by Christian church leaders need to be scrutinized since those deemed orthodox often were merely the ones who won the theological argument, largely due to politics. I agree with Cox that that clearly was the case regarding the Nicene Council and its creed. He says the winners “make the rules and write the books” (p. 94). He also acknowledges that the losers who write books get them all burned up by the winners, as was the case with Arius and many others in church history. It is interesting to me that that can’t happen anymore because of digital books and the Internet.
The remainder of The Future of Faith is a lot about the experiences of Dr. Harvey Cox that substantiate what he has so far laid down in this book. Some of them are very interesting, such as his visits to the Vatican and private meeting with Catholic Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who at the time was the prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the successor of the Inquisition, and later became pope. He said Ratzinger affirmed that troubles in the Church are rightly handled by its hierarchy and that Catholic doctrine is correctly a merging of early Christianity and Greek philosophy. That admission shocked me.
In conclusion, I respect Dr. Harvey Cox and think he is a delightful fellow. I recommend his book, The Future of Faith, as an interesting assessment of the history of Christianity. I agree with a lot of it and learned many things about history. I just don’t see how liberal Christians like him seem to deny Jesus’ bodily resurrection since, according to the New Testament, it was so important to the early Christians such as Peter and Paul that they were willing to risk their lives in preaching it wherever they went.