An adopted son? Some early heresies

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If, as some claim, the Bible interprets itself, much of the history of Christianity makes no sense, as it consists, in large measure, of men arguing over what it means. One of the first such disputes, once the Christians had been thrown out of the Synagogues, came as Christians began to grapple with the implications of Christ being the logos and the sarx – the Word and the flesh. If the words of Holy Scripture were that easy to understand, then the first few centuries of Christianity’s existence make no sense. Let us examine some of the early disputes to get a flavour of how men read Scripture; you may well end by concluding that there are no new heresies, just recycled old ones.

In Eusebius’ history, we read about the Ebionites. Some of these denied Jesus was anything save a very holy man, and they denied entirely the Virgin birth. Others did not go that far, but they all denied that he ‘pre-existed, being God, Word, and Wisdom’.  Sabellius of Rome thought that Father, Son and Holy Ghost, were but three aspects of the one God – which put Christ at the other end of the spectrum from the Ebionites – Christ was fully divine. This belief, often called after its founder, Sabellianism, was foundational to the thought of Paul of Samosata, who was bishop of Antioch from 260-272).

Antioch was one of the early centres of Christianity – indeed it was where we were first called Christians. Paul taught what has become knows as “monarchianism”. Paul was trying to refute the claims of Jews and others that Christians were polytheists, but as so often, an attempt to do something positive, had negative effects. In denying the idea that Father, Son and Holy Ghost were three Gods, and in asserting they were one, Paul fell into error by insisting that the three members of what would become known as the Trinity were three faces of the One God. An understandable thought, but one which bore in it serious errors once men began to consider it.

Paul read Scripture as meaning that Jesus was just a man until he was adopted by God at His baptism in the Jordan – hence his line of thought was called ‘adoptionist monarchianism’. He taught that the logos was subordinate to God – which led to a line of thought called ‘subordinationism’, out of which Arianism (about which more later) came.

Antioch was one of the centres of early Christian thought, and it tended toward an emphasis on the humanity of Christ, and whilst acknowledging that He was divine, it tended towards some form of adoptionism. There is no doubt one could read many of the verses of the Bible this way, but as Justin Martyr (second century) and Tertulian (third century) both argued, this failed to explain how the Word could have been in the beginning with God and have been God – neither dd it explain how the Word became flesh.

The best of the Antiochene theologians was Theodore of Mopsuestia (c.350-428), whose thought we considered yesterday, and who fell into the error of emphasising Christ’s humanity to the extent that he downplayed the divinity.

The School of Antioch

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Theodore of Mopsuestia (392-428), was one of the leading lights of the Antiochene School, and his biblical exegesis and theological reflections became the standard of orthodoxy of the churches in Persia in succeeding centuries, and he remains an important figure for the Church of the East. His teacher, Diodore, bishop of Tarsus (378-394), had taught that there had to be a clear division or distinction between “flesh” on the one hand and “Logos” on the other. Theodore taught that: “When we try to distinguish the natures, we say that the person of the man is complete and that that of the Godhead is complete.”

Theodore’s concept of the divine-human relationship in Christ is also connected to his soteriology, or doctrine of salvation. He drew an analogy between God’s relationship to Christ, and God’s relationship with those He redeemed. Just as God’s Spirit guides the soul of a believer now, and will perfectly govern it in the future, so the indwelling Logos guided and governed Christ. In Theodore’s words, “Therefore, just as we, if we come at last to the future state, shall be perfectly governed by the Spirit in body and soul, but now possess a kind of partial first fruits of that condition…so also the Lord ” By indwelling Jesus, God increasingly governed Him through the Logos, just as He increasingly governs the redeemed. Christ was a human being in whom the Spirit of God dwelt in a very special manner.

It has become fashionable recently to argue that Theodore was not the heretic that he was called by the early Church, and to point out that some of his thinking can be traced in the ‘Tome of Leo’ at Chalcedon. Truly there is nothing new under the sun. It was precisely for that reason that the Fathers of the Copts rejected Chalcedon – they saw in it the hand of Theodore. That was wrong then for the reason it is wrong now. There is not the slightest evidence Leo the Great had read any Theodore, and his ‘Tome’ certainly does not treat Jesus as a man in whom the Holy Spirit indwelt in a special manner, neither does it treat Jesus’ two natures as married to each other in the way a husband and wife are.

It is important to realise that whilst Theodore’s final expressions of his views were heretical, they are based on a substrata of ideas which are not. If one wanted to be ecumenical, one might say that Theodore’s ideas were an evolutionary dead end to a set of ideas which through a process of natural selection, survived via Leo and Chalcedon. Theodore certainly offered answers to the question of what it meant to say that the Word was made flesh, but it was one which contained too many elements of adoptionism and Sabellianism to be judged satisfactory. It left open the door to the idea that Christ was a human being adopted in a special way by God. It said nothing about pre-existence, and this is where it failed to provide a fully satisfactory answer.

For the missing elements, we need to turn to Alexandria, where we shall have occasion to note, again, error mixed with truth.

Jesus and the Father (2)

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Scripture does not interpret itself; we interpret it. There are two main methods of interpretation: one’s own reading; or the reading of a tradition within Christianity. We can see from John’s Epistles that there were those in his own Community who would not accept his word on who Jesus was. We can also see Paul, Jude and Peter all warning against false teachers. From the beginning there have been these two interpretations – what an individual claimed, and what the Church as a community claimed. One of the first areas of dispute was the one we have begun to consider – which is the question of the relationship between Jesus and the one He called ‘the Father’.

It is easy for the unwary to fall into the trap Bosco has – that is insisting that Jesus is the Father, and that the words can be used interchangeably – as though ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ are the same thing. It was partly in response to the the false teachings which he detected in his own Community that St John set down his Gospel as he did, paying attention to what we now call Christology, in a way the other Evangelists did not. Hence we get St John writing such verses as:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

 I and My Father are one.”

If one reads this a meaning that Jesus is the Father and the two are interchangeable, then precisely what does John 14:28 mean:

You have heard Me say to you, ‘I am going away and coming back to you.’ If you loved Me, you would rejoice because I said, ‘I am going to the Father,’ for My Father is greater than I.

If Jesus and the Father are the same person then here Jesus is saying he is ‘greater than himself’ – which would be plain odd. We can turn to Hebrews 2:9 for help, as it tells us that Jesus ‘was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death’. As Paul told the Philippians:

Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.

But the problem is that read unaided, this still does not provide proof that Jesus is not a creation of the Father, and might, in the wrong hands lead the believer even further astray. Indeed there were some in the early church who read this as meaning that Jesus only appeared to be a man –  which led to a heresy known as Docetism. But they were as wrong as Bosco is in insisting Jesus ‘is the Father’.  It was in trying to understand these statements that the early Church developed the doctrine of the Trinity.

Clearly Jesus is saying He is God, and as St John tells us, in words which condemned the docetists:

2 By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess that[a] Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world.

But Jesus is also made man, so in that sense He is lower than God; He is also not the Father, although the Father is God. Now, had Bosco taken the trouble to read, instead of mock, St Cyril of Alexandria, then he would not only not make claims which Jesus never made (He never says ‘I am the Father’), he would begin to know who Jesus is.

St Cyril explained the relationship by what he called the ‘hypostatic union’, which Bosco feels he can mock as having nothing to do with salvation. Unlike his own ruminations, the idea of the hypostasis is based upon what is in the Bible, not what someone wants to be in there. To quote a summary so good that I cannot see how it could better put:

This is the union of the two natures (Divine and human) in the person of Jesus. Jesus is God in flesh (John 1:1,1410:30-3320:28Phil. 2:5-8Heb. 1:8). He is fully God and fully man (Col. 2:9); thus, he has two natures: God and man. He is not half God and half man. He is 100% God and 100% man. He never lost his divinity.  He continued to exist as God when he became a man and added human nature to Himself (Phil. 2:5-11). Therefore, there is a “union in one person of a full human nature and a full divine nature.” Right now in heaven there is a man, Jesus, who is our Mediator between us and God the Father (1 Tim. 2:5). 

This is the answer to what Jesus means when He tells us that He who has seen Him has seen the Father, and that He is in the Father and the Father is in Him. It explains who Jesus is praying to, and how the Father can be greater than Him and yet Jesus is God. As the Trinitarian diagram as the top puts it: ‘The Father is God, the Son is God – the Father is not the Son, and the Son is not the Father.’

But we should not be surprised at such disputes, for, as we shall see in the next post, the Apostles themselves were familiar with them. Yes, there were men so proud that they would deny the words of the beloved disciple himself. They were, of course, they claimed, inspired by a new spirit. There are many such in this world, of course, but not all of God.

 

The Mission of Christ Jesus

 

Jesus the Messiah came to restore the House of Israel and to reclaim the Gentiles from their gods. His mission began with the Incarnation. He humiliated the powers of darkness at the Cross, where He redeemed His people. His mission continues today in the work of the Church.

Jesus is the Messenger of the Covenant, spoken of by the prophet Malachi. Reflect on his words.

Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, says Yahweh of hosts.

-Mal. 3:1

This text would have been understood as parallel to the return of the Shekinah to the Temple mentioned by Ezekiel (ch. 43:1-9). The House of Israel expected their Lord to return in the same way He had sanctified the Temple in the days of Solomon (1 Kgs 8:10-11). However, the fulfilment was unlike their expectations: the presence of Yahweh came to the temple of stone, but Yahweh had a new temple, a temple of flesh.

Jesus answered and said to them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

 Then said the Jews, “Forty and six years was this temple in building, and will you rear it up in three days?”

But He spoke of the temple of His body. When therefore He was risen from the dead, His disciples remembered that he had said this to them; and they believed the scripture, and the word which Jesus had said.

-Jn. 2:19-22

The Messenger of the Covenant had come to bring a new covenant that would usher in the promises God had made. The author of Hebrews discusses at length the weaknesses of the Mosaic Covenant, and Paul writes in Galatians about how the Mosaic Covenant was never intended to be permanent: it was meant to be a restraining and guiding influence until the people were ready for the New Covenant.

The New Covenant is meant to bring us towards the perfected state, the New Eden. We have experiences of this now in a manner analogous to the “first fruits” principle of the OT: we see healings, exorcisms, prosperity, visitations. Jesus is ruling from His throne NOW. But at the same time, we have the “not yet” element to the covenant, we await the global Eden of the restoration prophesied by Jesus.

Jesus as the Messenger of the Covenant came first to the House of Israel. When they return to their Lord, then, as Paul says in Romans, we shall see the resurrection of the dead and the restoration of all things. They rejected the Messenger, Jesus, and in doing so rejected the One who sent Him, the Father. The rejection is not final (pace replacement theology/supercessionism). Until that time, pray for the restoration of the House of Israel, of which we are seeing glimpses already, and sing with sincerity O come, O come Emmanuel.

I recommend the Covenant and Controversy series, which can be accessed here:

Jesus and the Father

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god_father_guercinoOne of the first disadvantages of ignoring Christian history and of reading the Bible through the inspiration of whatever spirit one thinks inspires one, is it leads to repeating old mistaken readings of who God is. Christianity is a monotheistic religion. We, as Christians, believe in one God. This belief we inherit from the Jews – our older brothers in the Faith. But the first Christians, who were, for the most part Jews, and who prayed in the Synagogues, were thrown out of them because, to their fellow Jews, it looked as though they were polytheists. They baptised people in the ‘Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit’, and in confessing their founded, Jesus, as the Messiah, gave him equality with God. It was little wonder that many Jews thought such a statement blasphemous. Islam takes much the same position.

Our friend Bosco, who, as ever, does proxy for a whole range of beliefs along the spectrum of individual interpretation, is convinced that Jesus is the Father. As he put it in one comment:

 Ive said it millions of time here that Christ is the Father. i use the names interchangeably.

Bosco finds my reiteration of orthodox Christian belief a problem, and cannot quite believe me when I say He is not identical with the Father:

Do you still think Jesus isnt the Father?
I get it..you were pulling my leg. I guess i deserve it.

Bosco is convinced that Jesus is the Father, that they are one and the same. He is willing to admit: ‘True, one can say they are separate but the same. One is still saying that Jesus is the Father.’ He adds, with the pride of the ‘saved’:  ‘I had no idea that the pharisees in here didnt think Jesus is the Father. It proves my point that they are blind to scripture.’ Perhaps, or perhaps it proves the point I am seeking to establish here, that it leads the unwary to repeat some of the earliest misreadings of Christian teaching?

The question of who Jesus is lies at the centre of our relationship with Him; if we think He is other than He is, then we have a relationship not with Him, but with someone we have constructed from our reading of the Bible.

We need to remember that long before there was a written text, the Church founded by Jesus spread His word, and we know that long before there was any Canon, Christians had puzzled over how Jesus could be God and yet pray to God; how he could pray to the Father if the Father was God and He was God; and just what the relationship between Father and Son was. One answer was the one Bosco prefers, which is that Jesus is the Father, and when He prays to the Father or asks Him for help, He is really showing us how to pray, not doing something real. To the question of who was governing the Universe during the Incarnation, if Jesus is the Father, there has never been an answer, except that it is all a miracle. But what then of the idea that Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father? At this point, Bosco has to abandon his usual literalist reading, as it makes no sense.

But he has no such need, because Christians have been there long before him. So, John 10:14:

Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works.

Jesus often emphasises that He speaks for the Father, and the Father speaks through Him, and that the one who has seen Him has seen the Father; but not once, not anywhere, does He say He is the Father. So we have the irony that Bosco, the most literalist reader, tells us something Jesus never said. As so often, Bosco is reading into the Bible something that is not there in order to justify a reading he claims is literalist, but is nothing of the sort. So, if Jesus saying He and the Father are ‘one’ is not the same as Jesus saying ‘I am the Father’, what does it mean?  It was precisely that problem Christians wrestled with from the beginning. Bosco, like too many modern Christians, especially those claiming to have been given a new spirit, neglects these lessons, and in so doing, repeats mistakes.  How did the early Church deal with this issue?

 

One God or Three?

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Every Jew knew there was only One God – I am who I am. He was not to be named and He certainly had no progeny. It was little wonder that they thought the followers of Christ blasphemers. They thought they had rid themselves of these heretics when Jesus was crucified; instead His followers made some ridiculous claim that He had risen from the dead. Not all the attempts to crush them managed to quell the threat they posed. These men remained members of the synagogue, but they consorted with Gentiles and, so it was said, even ate with them.  But of all the things which the early Church taught, the thing which challenged Judaism most is the idea of the Logos of God being made flesh (sarx, in Greek).  St. John’s Gospel does not tell us how the Word became flesh, or what the relationship between the Logos and the sarx was, or how the flesh and the logos coexisted; but he does tell us that the Word became flesh.

The author of Hebrews makes the same claim:

 but ‘in these last days he has spoken to us by a [or the] Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains [or bears along] all things by his powerful word.’

In one of the very earliest Christian documents, Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we see just the same ‘high’ Christology we see in John. Of Christ he writes:

who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,

Paul saw no conflict with monotheism. As he told the Corinthians‘yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.’

St John told the followers of Christ that ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14) – kai ho logos sarx egeneto kai eskhnwsen – as the Greek has it. This is the critical verse. It embodies the most startling claim ever made.  Pagan mythology was full of gods copulating with human females, pagan culture was used to ‘sons of god’ in that sense, and in the sense of divine emperors. But the Jews stood against this tide of polytheism. Here, at the beginning of the Gospel according to St John was have the claim that the ‘logos’ of God, who superintended creation, and who had spoken to the prophets, became ‘flesh’ (sarx). The claim is not that the logos ceased to be the logos, but that whilst remaining logos, became sarx.

But how could the Eternal Word of God become flesh? What did that mean? And worse, these Christians claimed Jesus was the ‘Son’ of God? How could God have a Son? More than that, how could God have a Son and be one God? Such blasphemies were behind the expulsion of the Christians from the Temple and the Synagogues. They were also, as we shall now see, the subject of a great deal of debate among Christians.

 

 

Jesus as ‘Lord’

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The first Christians were not separated from their fellow Jews. They continued to worship in the Synagogues, and it is likely that many of the Gentile converts to Christianity were those ‘God-fearers’ who were to be found in the Court of the Gentiles. But, even before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70, there was tension, and the way in which both St John and St Matthew write about ‘the Jews’, makes it clear that there had been a breach, which had seen the ‘Christians’ ejected from the Synagogues. There were two main reasons for this: the first, which will be considred here, was the claim that Jesus was God; the second, which will form the subject of the next few posts, was the claim that the Christians were, in fact, polytheists.

Scholars have sometimes claimed that a ‘high Christology’, that is the claim that Jesus is God, was a late development, and tended to date any writings making it accordingly, but Larry Hurtado and others, have made more convincing claims for the idea that from the beginning, Christians thought Jesus was ‘Lord’.

Indeed, one of the most important of the early titles accorded Jesus was ‘Lord’ (Romans 1:4; 1 Cor. 1:3). The Aramaic, still in use today by the Syriac Orthodox Church, was Mar, which we see in I Corinthians 16:22 where Paul uses the phrase “Maran atha’ – which means ‘Lord come’. The Greek text uses the word ‘kurios’ (from whence ‘Kyrie’), which could be simply a title of respect. However the Septuagint translates YHWH as ‘kurios’, which is why it is applied to Jesus. It is used of Him all the time in Acts, and in Luke. Before the Resurrection it is used only by those inspired (Lk 1:43, 76), afterwards, it is always used. Doubting Thomas calls Him ‘My Lord and My God’ – ‘kurios … kai theos’ (Jn 20:28). This usage, in the early Gospels, is confirmed by our reading of Paul.

Paul’s letters are some of the earliest Christian documents we have, indeed, some would say the earliest. The idea that Jesus is the Son of God (huios tou theou) is found in Romans (8:29) and Galatians (1:16; 4:4 and following). But he uses the exact phrase only thrice: Romans 8:11-16; 2 Cor. 1:19 and Gal. 4:4-7) Here, as elsewhere in the Synoptic Gospels and Pauline epistles, Jesus is Son of God by virtue of His resurrection and exaltation. Mark establishes it through the baptism of Jesus (1:11) and through the words of the demons (3:11), but again, it is the experience of the Cross (15:39) which confirms it at the end. Matthew and Luke both see the Sonship confirmed at the time of the conception of Jesus (Matt. 1:23; 2:15; Lk 1.32, 35). But is in John that we get the fullest sense of what this is, and it is John who mentions it most often (1:18, 34; 3:18, 36; 11:27; 19:7; 20:31), famously calling Him the ‘logos’ who was in the beginning with God (1:1-3).John’s opening passage echoes the opening of Genesis 1:1.

Now, whilst the idea of being a ‘son of God’ was not uncommon in an ancient world where the Emperor was a living god, the notion that Jesus was with God in the beginning presented an obvious problem. This distinguished Him from other, pagan, ‘sons of god’, but it also offered a potential affront to the monotheism of the Jews. If the claim that Jesus was the Christ was offensive, then the assertion that God had a ‘son’ was even more so; it was a direct affront to Jewish montheism. It is to that we now turn our attention.

 

The New Testament and heretics

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The modern scholarly line which maintains that orthodoxy is simply the set of beliefs that have won out across time, and thus implies that heresies are simply beliefs which the Church chose not to follow, is both right and profoundly wrong. It is right to say they are the beliefs that won out, although, as I suggested last time, if one believes in an hermeneutic of continuity in which the Church founded by Christ is, indeed, resistant to the Gates of Hell, this need occasion no surprise. But if, as is often implied, such a view is taken to mean that there is no such thing as orthodox belief, nothing could be less true. We can see from the New Testament itself the concern of the Evangelists to ensure that wrong beliefs were not adopted; from the beginning there were tares among the wheat.

There is heresy in the New Testament. Galatians, Colossians, the Pastoral Epistles, Jude, 2 Peter, 1 John and Revelation are the places we find heresy. The bad news for those who argue that ‘orthodoxy’ was a late development is that the heretics are denounced by the writers of those epistles, because heresy appears only as a set of errors which are to be condemned; you can only condemn something if you have an orthodoxy against which to measure what is unorthodox.

St Paul rebukes the Galatians for listening to those who preached ‘another Gospel’.  It seems they had been promoting the idea that Gentile converts should be circumcised. They had been putting forward the idea that it was vital to observe Old Testament Law. These ‘Judaisers’ may well, as some have speculated, have been from the Jerusalem Church, and have been ‘James’ men’. Either way, it took the first council of Jerusalem to rule on the issue. You might argue that this set the model for the future. Someone came along to a church claiming something which the Apostle who founded it had never said; it caused a ruckus; the Church decided what was and was not orthodox.

We don’t quite know what the ‘Colossian heresy’ was. In his epistle, Paul mentions circumcision, food laws, Sabbath and purity regulations, but whilst there may have been elements of ‘Judaising’ there were other element involved. Paul mentions words such as ‘pleroma’ (fullness), ‘philosophia’, and ‘gnosis’ (knowledge), all of which, along with the rest of the letter, suggest elements of gnosticism. This was one of the earliest and most persistent of heresies. Its adherents claimed that they were inspired by the ‘new spirit’ mentioned by Jesus, and that, as a result of this, they had access to special knowledge (gnosis) which was denied to those who had never been visited by the spirit. It allowed those arguing such a position to contradict what even the Apostles taught, as they had access to some secret knowledge which allowed them a unique understanding of what the words of Jesus meant.

In Titus and 1 and 2 Timothy, we see Paul roundly condemning heretical teaching. Again it looks as though there was a mixture of Judaising and gnostic speculations. None of this should be surprising. It was natural that many converting Jews would bring with them their own practices, and that converting Gentiles would do the same.

It may have been similar sorts of teaching against which Jude was warning when he writes about false teachers who do not ‘have the Spirit.’ These self-seeking, unreliable and unstable shepherds were roundly condemned. It may be that like those mentioned in 2 Peter, they ‘cunningly devised fables’ about the date of the Second Coming, and justified indulgence in fleshly sins on the back of it. One early, and repeated heresy, was the idea that the ‘saved’ could not lose salvation, and were therefore free to indulge their fleshly appetites.

We can see in 1 John that, as in Colossus and Galatia, some of the heretics had been part of the church, but had ended up preaching a different Gospel. In other words, men and women who had been converted by the Apostle himself, or, in the parlance of Bosco, had been ‘saved’, claimed that the new spirit they had received gave them access to a revelation which allowed them to refute even the Apostle himself. in John’s case, it seems as though members of his own Community denied that Jesus had come truly in the flesh – an early form of what became known as Docetism.

Revelation is a feast of examples of heresies: the Nicolaitans (who seem to have urged believers to take part in pagan rituals); a Jezabel, who led believers into idolatry, and the ‘depths of Satan’, another set of idolaters.

Against all of this was set the message which Paul and the Apostles had received, what Jude called the ‘faith once delivered to the Apostles’. There was, as we shall see, a diversity of orthodox belief and practice, but there was, from the beginning, a very clear idea of what lay outside the sphere of what Christians could believe and remain Christian.

If, even in the era of the Apostles, false teachers abounded, it is hardly to be wondered at that as the early arrival of the Second Coming was postponed, the Christian communities wrestled with the implications of some of the Gospel teaching. Indeed, one reason the New Testament exists is that churches kept Paul’s letters, an men like Mark, who had been Peter’s secretary, and Luke, who had been a companion of St Paul’s, wrote down their accounts of the ministry of Jesus and, in the case of Luke, wrote the earliest history of the Church.

Reading with and without the Church

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For the last few weeks readers have borne patiently with two series on one of the more obscure parts of the history of the Church. For our friend Bosco it was all pretty irrelevant: ‘Either one is saved or one isn’t. everyone is wrong. But only a few are saved.’ This is, as so often, at the extreme end of a not uncommon reaction among contemporaries; the new, the modern, is always more relevant than the old. What, Bosco asked elsewhere, was the point of all these ‘add ons’ to Christianity?

Pride, the desire to become as wise as God, led to the Fall of Man, and we see examples everywhere of where it leads us: being able to mine the resources of the earth to make life better for ourselves, we did so without regard for its effects, and when some of those effects are pointed out, we don’t much like it; being able to reason to make better laws for our governance, we forgot, or at least are forgetting, their foundation in the Natural Law, and so invent laws which defy it; being able to make weapons to defend ourselves, we have been able to make ones which can destroy the whole planet. But perhaps the most deadly pride of all is the one which we can trace through the history of the Faith we have been looking at these last few weeks?

Nestorius, like Arius before him, cited Scripture for his view that Mary was not the Mother of God. Arius had argued that Scripture showed that Jesus was a creature, the first of the creatures made by God, but a creature all the same. Against that, Bishop Alexander and then Athanasius had argued the opposite; but they had on their side not simply their own definition of Scripture, but the tradition they had inherited going back to the Apostles. But it was not the only ‘tradition’. We know, from St John’s Epistles, that there were those in in own community who denied his witness and taught that Jesus was not the Christ come in the flesh. Even in the earthly lifetime of the Incarnate Word, there were those who questioned His witness and left Him when he said that to be saved people would have to eat His body and drink His blood. One of the difficulties with claiming one is inspired by the Spirit is that anyone can do it, and from very early on, with Simon Magus, people did. How was the ordinary person to know who was, and was not, inspired by the true Spirit?

We see, in the history we have been reading, how early Christians sought to solve the problem – and we also see the problems that solution caused. Jesus founded a Church, and when His followers were in doubt, they were adjured to take their concerns to the Church. We see, in Acts, with the Council of Jerusalem how the Apostles interpreted that, and the Councils with which we have been dealing saw themselves as continuations of that. As it became clear that those who expected the Second Coming to happen in their lifetime (an expectation that can certainly be read from Christ’s words) were wrong, the scattered, and often persecuted, Christian communities, sought to ensure that, as the Apostles had wanted, only the right Gospel was preached. How did they do that, and how can we be sure they were right?

This is a vexed question for the historian, and there was, and still in some quarters is, a fashion for saying that the answer is that we cannot be sure, and that what is ‘orthodoxy’ was simply the stronger faction within Christianity, which asserted its will through force. There are two difficulties with this: the first is that it puts Christ out of the equation; the second is the historical context. Jesus founded a Church and said that the very forces of hell would not prevail against her, and read in this light, there is a hermeneutic of continuity to be discerned; despite the trials and tribulations, the Truth survived and was passed on. Secondly, at least until the days of Theodosius in the 380s, Christians possessed no State apparatus, and far from persecuting, were persecuted. So the early arguments over who Christ was and whether ‘Father, Son and Holy Ghost’ were one or three Gods, and if One, how could there be three persons, were hammered out with a reference to the traditions of the Church.

One of the fatal flaws in the often heard argument that by relying on one’s own reading of the Gospels one can somehow recover the primitive belief of the ‘real’ and ‘original’ Church, is that it means ignoring the lessons learnt by the Church in the past – and thus repeating old heresies, but with the added disadvantage that, being one’s own reading, and believing the Bible interprets itself, one leaves one in a state of spiritual pride. If, as he claims, Bosco is inspired by a new spirit, then what need has he of all these old stories? He has the Scriptures and as he put it recently when asked how he read the Bible: ‘I read one word after another. Do you have a better way?’ This is not how the first Christians proceeded, and the dangers in it are clear enough when you end up writing things like this (inspired, Bosco says, by his new spirit):

If I was god, I wouldn’t have gone thru all that.
let me let you in on a secret. There are laws, laws that even God cant break. I don’t understand them, and neither does anyone. Why cant he wave his magic wand and make it all better? I don’t know. But here is the deal……these sins separate us from god somehow, and they have to be cleansed. Cleansed befor we can sit in his presence. Why are they sins? I don’t know. But God is lonely. hes sick and tired of being alone. He wants a help meet. So, in order to make a bride, the bride must want to be his bride, and this bride must be of the same stuff as god. We all love our cats, but they aren’t human. The only way god can be with a bride is if she is like him…..sinless.

Quite what any of this has to do with the Gospel preached by Jesus and proclaimed by the early Church, I can’t say It is the way Bosco reads Scripture, ‘one word after the other’. Is there a better way? It would be hard to find a worse.

We have seen, in the history we’ve been reading, that even the early Church found it hard to agree on all essentials, so we shall now turn to examine how it tried to deal with some of the difficulties its members encountered. But to read the Book which the early Church canonised and to ignore its understanding of that Book and to substitute for it one’s own reading is both unhistorical – and spiritually dangerous.

The Aftermath of Chalcedon

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The dispute over Canon 28, although not pushed at the time, can be taken as a marker for the slow shift of the tectonic plates between East and West, but more immediately, there was resistance to the whole Chalcedonian definition of the two natures of Christ back in Alexandria. Although Dioscorus had been deposed because of his conduct at Ephesus rather than for heresy, those of the Alexandrian school who distrusted the language of Leo’s Tome, conflated the two things and on his death in 457 elected their own Patriarch, Timothy, to oppose Proterius who had been chosen by the Emperor. Thenceforth there was hostility between Alexandria and Constantinople.

The results of Chalcedon were, then, long-lasting and far from positive. Alexandria and Syria were alienated politically, and were deeply suspicious of the language of Leo’s Tome, whilst Constantinople sought to coerce them into line. The violence used simply begat violence and deepened the split, and by the time Justinian tried to find a formula for reunion in the late 530s, it was too late. The long and bitter disputes weakened the authority of the Empire in the region, and helped pave the way of the Islamic invasions in the 630s. The See of St Mark fell under Islamic rule in 639 – and remains under it to this day. The Copts have shown huge bravery in confessing to the Faith once received from that time to this, though the numbers have fallen cruelly. Constantinople and Rome fell out firnally in 1054, with the Imperial capital falling to the Muslims in 1453; Of the 5 great patriarchies, that left only Rome free of Muslim rule.

The descendants of the non-Chalcedonians, like those who rejected Ephesus, the Nestorians, are still with us, but in their ancestral lands they are a persecuted minority.  The Chalcedonians who later rejected Rome make up a good number of the world’s Christians, but they have never called another Council. Those who adhere still to the Bishop of Rome make up a majority of the world’s Christians.

In our age we have a chance to repair the ravages of time and circumstance. The Schism which began at Chalcedon led to the ruin of the idea of Christendom, and countless men and women have paid a price for the pride of their ancestors. The post-Reformation Churches are, none of them, what they were, and who can tell how many generations they have left? The Evangelical churches wax and wane. Between them they all do good work, and no Catholic should ever ignore that, even though he or she might lament that they have not the fullness of the Faith; God and God alone decides who will be saved (despite the very large number of people who, like Bosco, make that claim for themselves). The Orthodox Churches command respect for their martyrs and their faithful witness in the direst of circumstances; who can withhold admiration for their fidelity? Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Church, the largest in the world, has its own problems as it always has. But our Popes have all, since Paul VI, looked to reunify Christendom should that be possible.

Jesus willed that His followers should be one; our fallen nature has warred against that command. In this short series we have traced the paths by which the first of the great Schisms opened up, and seen how the seeds for further schism were planted. In our time we can pray for and work for unity.