The splintering of the Church into various perspectives and priorities is not a product of enlightened Renaissance thinking. In fact, the history of the church from its earliest descriptions in the New Testament, is a history of division and diversity. At NO time do we find monolithic unity.
In the way Grail enthusiasts describe the consolidation of Church power, the story as told by both Brown and Gardner, is that “orthodoxy” and ideas about the divinity of Jesus Christ began at the Council of Nicea (Brown, Chapter 55, Gardner Chapter 12). This is absurd - ignoring the first three hundred years of Christian history in which Christians wrote letters, arguments and essays on theology.
Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, Origen, are just a few of the names known and studied by historians of the Church. These wrote of the divinity of Christ even when such a doctrine was outlawed by Imperial Rome. These wrote not to suppress “heresy,” but to argue against it point by point, in whatever form it took. Thus, heresies were not sought out and burned by “the Church,” they were, in fact, preserved through quotation in the writings that refuted them!
And there were many heretics, not the least important being the Gnostics. They were a significant movement in the early centuries, as would be expected by people attempting to syncretize the gospel with their Greek world-view of dualism. While the recovery of their writings at Nag Hammadi is a huge treasure for historical study, none of the Nag Hammadi documents provide anything new in terms of insight to Gnostic beliefs. Those have all been preserved by the Christians who refuted them point by point.
Also preserved through the Christian writers, are the beliefs and practices of the Ebionites, a group diametrically opposite the Gnostics in their heretical frame of reference. Other heretical groups include Montanists and Manicheeists.
Indeed, by the early 300’s, the Christians, still often persecuted, had become highly skilled in technical theology. It is this that brought about the Council of Nicea after Constantine converted to Christianity. This is not where the idea of the Divinity of Christ was introduced! That had been rehearsed for 300 years with greater degrees of complexity. At Nicea, a Christian named Arius squared off with a Christian named Athanasius. A bishop of Myra named Nicholas was so upset by the supporters of Arius that he hit one of them in the mouth - a sinful blemish on the record of the man we revere as Santa Claus.
The orthodox faith, which continues to be shared by Greek and Latin and Protestant churches, is that Athanasius (and Santa Claus) were right, and Arius was wrong. Gardner, on pp. 138-140, insinuates that Arius represented the esoteric Christology of the secret Grail societies. This is far from the truth. At issue at Nicea was whether Christ was co-eternal with God for all time. The Church says, yes Christ was. Arius had said, no, Christ was not - he was created before the world was created but he was created. Arius is a far cry from being in the camp of Brown’s and Gardner’s Grail Quest.
Even so, the decision did not follow Constantine’s own hopes - he had been on the side of Arius. That shows the limits to his own power over the church. He then appointed friends of Arius to his closest circle of advisors. Constantine heard a case against Athanasius himself, who just ten years after his triumph for the orthodox view, was exiled from his bishopric.
My primary source collection for this information is A New Eusebius (J. Stevenson, ed., London: 1957, 1960, William Clowes and Sons, Ltd). Numerous other volumes contain these writings of the ancient church and can be found in libraries everywhere.
This hardly looks like a monolithic Church structure exercising absolute power over a cowed populace! Not only that, but Nicea did not settle the question for many devout believers. More divisions would come after Nicea - the Nestorians broke communion but maintained their presence in the regions of Iraq, Iran and India. In North Africa, Donatists outnumbered the orthodox. And then Islam rose up from the Arabian desert, to sweep through almost three-fourths of Christendom until they occupied Spain and threatened Greece and the Balkans.