A brief note on Pelagians

I was  surprised tonight to read this in Celtic Daily Prayer:

But soon [Pelagius] was criticized for teaching women to read Scripture, and for believing that the image of God is present in every new-born child, and that sex is a God-given aspect of our essential creation. He did not deny the reality of evil or its assault on the human soul, or the habitual nature of sin. Augustine’s own peculiar ideas were in stark contrast, seeing humanity as essentially evil, and polluted by the sexual activity which causes conception to occur. (141)

Clearly misinformation and caricature are the best things to fill our devotional books. Thank you, Northumbria Community.

Now, I know that almost every heresiarch had a group in the 20th century seeking to rehabilitate his memory and prove his true orthodoxy, including Arius, Nestorius, and Pelagius. I have not read books on Pelagius himself, but Pelagianism, those things for which he got in trouble, is something of a different story than the caricature produced by people who imagine that “Celtic” Christianity is something special and unique, different from imperial, “Catholic” Christianity in the Mediterranean, represented by free spirits like Pelagius rather than horrible men like Augustine.

First, lots of women read Scripture. This is not part of the substance of any argument that could have brought Pelagius down, given St. Jerome’s tendency to be surrounded by virgins, some of whom could read the Old Testament in Hebrew.

Second, I understand that the question is not whether the image of God is present in new-born children but whether those children, like adults, are fallen and in need of redemption. The orthodox answer is that, yes, children are fallen; thus do we baptise them. Yes, they are in the image of God. We all are.

Third, even Augustine would agree that sex is a God-given aspect of our essential creation. What makes sex dirty is the fact that it is through sex that the man transmits the original sin of Adam. No doubt in his more Neo-Platonist moments, Augustine would also argue (along with St. Thomas Aquinas) that sexual intercourse is not always a good thing because it involves passion, not reason, and reason is the best part of a human. Part of the solution to this “problem” of sexual passion (as I believe explicated by Tertullian) was to say that Adam could engorge his membrum virile at will, rather than having it beyond the power of his reason.

We are not polluted by sexual activity, but our sin has irrevocably polluted it, since it is the means whereby sin is transmitted. This, as I understand it, is the Augustinian position.

To return to the second point, the Northumbria Community maintains that Augustine sees us as “essentially” evil. If we are to consider terminology, this is inaccurate. The Augustinian human being is not “essentially” evil; that would mean evil by essence, by nature. God does not create evil things. Human beings are necessarily evil, due to the fall of original sin.

Our essence is marred by evil, but not innately evil. This is how God is able to redeem us. Remember that for someone with so strong a Platonic background as Augustine, evil is essentially non-being. It is the absence of the good. Therefore, we cannot be evil by our own essence, or essentially evil. We can have a lack of good where it ought to have been. We can have ourselves marred so badly by evil that only a strike force from the heavenly realms can save us in a rescue mission (cf. Irenaeus and Athanasius). But this is not being “essentially evil” as the Northumbria Community contends.

Now, to say we are all evil in our very selves seems like a very pessimistic view of humanity to our “enlightened” ears. It is my contention that Augustine formulated it so very sharply because he was dealing with the very real, dangerous ideas of Pelagius’ followers (if not of Pelagius himself).

God’s grace, according to the Pelagian Julian of Eclanum, does not help us do good. We can not only choose God for ourselves (what most Calvinists think when they hear “Pelagian”), we can live a perfect, sinless life and attain salvation just as Christ lived of our own free will. God does not give us his grace in this endeavour. If He were to do so, He would contravene our free will and our good actions would be null and void.

Pelagianism (even if not Pelagius) teaches not simply that we can do good without God, but that we can be good without God. It teaches that we do not need God’s grace at any stage of our salvation because we have the capability within ourselves to live a holy life free of divine intervention.

This is not biblical orthodoxy. Whether you believe in the talking snake or not, the whole point of Gen 3 is to explain the very real condition of humanity as being basically cursed and sinful, fallen, lost. We need God’s grace to be saved. Now, some of us may fall in line with the Massilians (not Messalians who are heretics) like St. John Cassian and believe that there is some sort of synergy between our will and God’s (that’s a terrible way of putting it; read it for yourself); others may fall in with Predestinarians like St. Augustine of Hippo.

We all believe that we cannot be perfect without God’s help. We all believe that Christ is unique and “Adam” is more than a bad example, that our genes are hardwired for sin. Some of us believe in total depravity. Some of us don’t, believing that we can do good deeds without God. But we do not believe that we can save ourselves.

Believing that you, yourself, all alone, can save yourself free from God’s divine intervention is heresy.

We call it Pelagianism.

Whether or not Pelagius himself believed it, it’s the real reason he was condemned, not the mocking caricature provided for us by the Northumbria Community in Celtic Daily Prayer.

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Alexandros

The Council of Nikaia, St. Sozomen's Church, Galata, Cyprus. My photo.

Re-post from 2008.

Alexandros (the one nearest Konstantinos in the left-hand cluster) had presented his case before the gathering of overseers, explaining why Arios’ answer to his question was not acceptable. It had been long years since that fateful moment when the repercussions of Arios’ thoughts had come forth.

It all came out at the regular gathering of Alexandros and his elders. Alexandros took his role as overseer seriously. He knew that in earlier days the overseer would have been able to meet with the faithful individually. Now, though, the numbers of believers were too great, and that was the job of the elders under Alexandros’ charge. Nonetheless, he had had hands laid on him, and it was his threefold appointment to guide that flock, to uphold right teaching and theology, and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.[1] The elders did the last two things on a regular basis with most people for him. The Lord’s Supper was the normative occasion for worship, and at worship would the elders teach the people.

Thus, it was the responsibility of Alexandros to ensure that those into whose hands he had placed the spiritual health of his flock were teaching them the truth of the Anointed Jesus. It was also, he believed, part of the task of the overseer to pray with the elders and encourage them on their own spiritual journey. Alexandros took his spiritual authority and responsibility very seriously, for these were the matters of the greatest importance, never to be taken lightly.

And so they had gathered those long years before. After they had eaten the Lord’s Supper together, they sat down in a circle in the nave of the new basilica-style house of worship, serving the original congregation that Holy Markos had founded when he brought the Good News to Aigyptos. All eyes were upon Alexandros as he looked down at them.

“We believe in one God, and Jesus is the Word of that God, my brothers. As Holy Iohannes tells us, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him, all things were made; nothing that has been made was made without Him.’[2] Many who read the book of Proverbs see in the person of Wisdom this same Word of God. If this is the case, how can it be that Wisdom says, ‘The Lord created me a beginning of his ways, for his works’?”[3]

Konstantinos had told Alexandros in a letter that this was where he went wrong; that asking such questions was itself impious — and Arios had been wrong to answer. They ought, Konstantinos had told them, simply to make peace with one another.[4] Konstantinos was a politician and a warrior, just barely redeemed from darkest superstition and still minting coins with the Unconquered Sun on them.[5] He did not realise the deep import of these questions as the theologians pondered God and meditated on His great glory. Furthermore, the Assembly’s beliefs rested upon Scripture. Coming to an understanding of difficult passages of Scripture helped believers remain strong in the faith; if one could not trust the Scriptures, one could very well turn back to the worship of the Unconquered Sun.[6]

Furthermore, the young elder Arios was present; Arios had formerly been mixed up with Meletios,[7] and some Meletians who had an axe to grind had told Alexandros that Arios was teaching some unusual things regarding Jesus’ divinity.[8] Alexandros wanted to be sure his preachers would preach the faith handed down; he wanted to be sure that the rumours about Arios were untrue. Arios had a reputation for being a good preacher and expounder of the Scriptures at the Baukalis,[9] the house of God where he tended the flock.

Then Arios opened his mouth and formed words about the Word. He was determined at any cost to keep Jesus the Word subordinate to the Father and to do it all in a combination of Neo-Platonism and Aristotelian divisions. The accusations of the Meletians were true.

“The verse from Proverbs means that there was when he was not, Father. The Word is the Wisdom of God, and this passage clearly states that the Wisdom of God is a created being. This makes sense, for as Origen taught, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit each have a separate hypostasis.[10] If they each have a separate hypostasis, then they are distinct beings. If they are distinct beings, then only one of them can be God. God the Father is that one God, and He will never share his glory with another, as it says in Isaiah. The Word and the Spirit are, thus, creations; they are like God the Father’s hands, active in the creation and preservation of the universe. But they are not God Himself.”

“If they are not God himself, why does Holy Iohannes say that the Word is God?” the blessed servant Athanasios[11] had asked.

“This is a good question. Holy Iohannes is being rhetorical here, my brothers. He is not being literal. The Word is given the word God as a title only; he is not literally God. Being a creature, he is capable of change, as are we all, but of his own free will He continues good so long as he wishes. He is capable of change even as we are, but God, foreknowing that he would remain good, gave him in anticipation the glory which as man and in consequence of his virtue he afterward possessed. God from foreknowledge of his works made him become what he afterward was.”[12]

“Could not all three of them be, um, different manifestations of God?” asked one young elder.

Many eyebrows had risen at that. Alexandros shook his head slowly.

“No,” said another, “for they are mentioned as being distinct persons by Jesus Himself in the Good News according Holy Matthaios when He tells us to plunge people into water in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.[13] Therefore, since they all have distinct names, they are not simply manifestations of the one God. They are, as Arios noted, three hypostases.”

“Exactly,” said Arios. “And a difference of name means that there is a difference of substance. An apple is not a tree, is it? The Father is, thus, not the Son. If the distinction between apple and tree were false, we could give them both the same name. But if we call Father and Son by different names, they are not the same thing. And if they are not the same thing, and if the Father is God, then the Son cannot be said to be God in the same way. I do not deny that he is a divine being, but his divinity is not inherent to his being; his divinity comes from the Father and is only partial. He is not truly God in his substance and essence.”[14]

“You would dare say that the Anointed Jesus, the Word, the Son of God, whom the Scriptures themselves call God, is not eternal with the Father?” Alexandros had asked. He could say nothing more. He could not argue. He could only stare in shock at this man.

“Yes,” answered Arios. “As I said at the beginning, there was when he was not. The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us. As he dwelt among us, subordinating his will — as, indeed, his own being was so subordinated — to the Father’s, he improved, he resisted temptation. This divine Word came to mediate to us the grace of God the Father, for creation itself, so weak, fallen, feeble, sinful, cannot endure direct relationship with God Himself.”[15]

“Well, we see that you do not believe that Jesus is fully God,” said Athanasios. “Now it sounds that as some semi-divine being enfleshed he is not fully human.”

“This is true,” said Arios, sitting tall.

“If He is not fully God, He cannot redeem us or save us,” said Athanasios. “If He is not fully human, He cannot live a perfect human life and serve as a ransom for many; He cannot offer us a model to live by. His perfection is useless if He is not fully man. His sacrifice is empty if He is not fully God. What you offer us cannot conquer sin. It cannot conquer death. All it can do is feebly tackle philosophers’ questions. The true Anointed One, however, can tackle the philosophers’ questions with might and strength, as well as standing astride sin and death. We eat the flesh of the real man, Jesus. We drink the blood of the real God, Jesus. He is alive, and He is eternal with the Father, true God of true God. I shall not quote the Scriptures to you, impious preacher. You have read them; you know them. Reread them and meditate upon them!”

Once Arios’ teaching became public, it spread beyond Alexandreia. Two years before Nikaia they had excommunicated him and condemned his teachings in Alexandreia. The next year, Antiokheia did likewise, also condemning Eusebios of Kaisereia as a follower of Arios pernicious teachings. And now they were at Nikaia to bring down Arios’ teachings once and for all.

Alexandros was drawn from his reverie by Alexandros of Byzantion, next to whom he was sitting.

“Alexandros,” he whispered, “what is your vote?”

“About what?” he asked, looking about at the assembled crowd.

“Do you agree that an overseer should be chosen by all the overseers of his province, with a minimum of three present if they cannot all make it, but the consent of the others being sent in by letter?”

“What?”

“The statement we’re voting on is: It is by all means proper that an overseer should be appointed by all the overseers in the province; but should this be difficult, either on account of urgent necessity or because of distance, three at least should meet together, and the suffrages of the absent overseers also being given and communicated in writing, then the ordination should take place. But in every province the ratification of what is done should be left to the Metropolitan.”[16]

“Sure. Yeah. Otherwise we’d have Donatos or Meletios all over again or something, wouldn’t we? There are rogue overseers in Aigyptos, men consecrated by Meletios.”

“Then raise your hand,” the overseer of Byzantion said, gesturing at his own raised hand. “Did you think I was just blessing everyone with this upraised arm?”

Alexandros chuckled and raised his hand to show his assent.


[1] Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (London, Peguin: 1963), p. 253.

[2] John 1:1-3.

[3] Proverbs 8:22.

[4] Eusebius, Life of Constantine. Averil Cameron and Stuart G. Hall trans. and commentary. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), p. 118.

[5] Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (London, Penguin: 1967), pp. 126-127.

[6] Chadwick notes that a bishop of Troy had done just that but fails to mention which one, p. 127. Emperor Julian the Apostate would do so as well.

[7] Meletius of Lycopolis was a schismatic in the early fourth century who was ordaining people in Alexandria against the current bishop’s wishes. His actions were dealt with at Nicaea as well. (For more, see the Catholic Encyclopedia)

[8] Hubertus Drobner, The Fathers of the Church, trans. Siegfried S. Schatzmann (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007), p. 237. W. H. C. Frend, The Early Church (Peabody, Mass.: Fortress Press, 1982), p. 136.

[9] Drobner wonders if Arius’ church got its name due to its shape, a baukalis being ‘a sturdy earthenware vessel with a narrow bottleneck’, p. 236.

[10] You try to find a good English word for hypostasis. Drobner, 236.

[11] The chances of St. Athanasius being at the event in question are very slim; if he was there at all, his participation in it would also be slim.

[12] From the words “is capable…” onwards, quoting Athanasius quoting Arius as recorded by W. H. C. Frend, The Early Church, pp.135-136.

[13] Matthew 28:19.

[14] This development of Arius’ logic is from Gerald Bray, Creeds, Councils and Christ, (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1989), p. 107.

[15] Frend, 135.

[16] Canon IV of the Council of Nicaea.

Silvester

The Council of Nikaia, St. Sozomen's Church, Galata, Cyprus. My photo.

Re-post from 2008.

Overseer Silvester (bottom right, nearest Constantinus), Father of the Assembly at Roma, was a little surprised to find himself amidst the gathering at Nicaea. But then, that’s what happens when you leave your travel arrangements in the hands of Byzantine fresco-painters on Cyprus.

He listened as overseers waxed eloquent about the dual nature of the Anointed, declaring that Jesus was fully man and fully God, and that any other formulation of his personhood would make him incapable of redeeming mankind. As one overseer clad in a flaming stole and glistening golden garments spoke, Silvester looked to Arius and was surprised to see the heresiarchus literally shrinking before his eyes! And so, he thought, is the fate of the enemies of truth. He sincerely hoped that he would never fall into heresy.

And then the fiery overseer turned to Silvester, ‘What say you, Father?’

Silvester stood up and opened his mouth, ‘Lord, hear my prayer.

And he was in a basilica, somewhere in Nicaea, celebrating the Lord’s Supper in Latin. At a conference full of Greek overseers.

He heard the response, ‘Et clamor meus ad te veniat.

He was impressed that the Greeklings knew the response and ploughed on through, ‘The Lord be with you.

‘And with your spirit.

‘Hear us, holy Lord, almighty Father, eternal God; and send your holy angel from heaven, who guards, favours, protects, attends, and defends all who dwell in this habitation. Through our Anointed Lord.’

‘Amen.’

And Silvester continued through the prayers for the Lord’s Supper. And then, suddenly, after the Liturgy of the Word was over, he found himself, rather than preaching a homily, making a declaration along with the other overseers. Together, they were declaring a formula of belief, not dissimilar to Roma’s baptismal formula, only with notable changes, declaring Jesus to be ‘God of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father,’ all things that Arius would never consent to.

And then Silvester awoke. He found himself to be in Lateran Palace in Roma, in his own bed. He rose from his straw-filled mattress and went to get dressed. As he dressed himself in a black cassock, he wondered what exactly his dream would signify. He was asked by a flaming, resplendent overseer his opinion as Arius shrunk. His response to the questions of doctrine had been the Lord’s Supper — but no ordinary Lord’s Supper, for this time, they recited a statement of faith that kept Arius’ teachings out of the Assembly and also included the word he had spent much time considering, consubstantialis.

Having tied his cincture tight, he stepped from his chamber to go to the new basilica to pray before his duties began. It was still early as the successor of the Rock walked through the passages of the emperor’s former palace. No one was about, and he made his way to the basilica and knelt before the holy table, praying to the Lord for guidance, for purity, and for right understanding.

Having prayed, he stood, and was a little surprised to see an elder named Julius standing at the back of the house of the Lord. He approached him and smiled.

‘Good morning, Julius,’ said Silvester.

‘Good morning, sir,’ responded Julius. ‘Is there any news yet about the proceedings in Nicaea in Bithynia?’

‘You are awake this early and come to find me simply to ask this?’

‘No, sir, I was simply in the area. I go for walks each morning after my prayers to see the city and the people who live here. Ah, how beautiful Roma is! How delightful to live in her light! And to visit here, the house you have built for God, is also a great blessing. That I have met with you is simply coincidence; the council is much on my mind, you see, and I have been praying hard for right thinking and right worship to prevail. Have you any news?’

‘Nothing conclusive yet,’ replied the old man. ‘Your fervour for the truth is admirable, as is your concern for Jesus’ flock. One of the blessings of my time so far as successor to the Rock is that the yeast of Arius has not yet come to Italia, to Roma. It is the sort of dispute one would expect philosophy-loving Greeks to come up with — it is dangerous to ask too deeply the questions of “How?” when discussing the Godhead. We are best to say that Jesus is Lord. As Lord, He must be God, for God will contend with no rivals, nor can a creature save creatures. That He is the incarnate God shows forth the fullness of God’s love in a way that no incarnate spirit-creation ever could. But how is He the God-man? Ah, I dare not tread in mysteries so deep.

‘I am opposed to Arius’ teachings, for they are contrary to the plain teachings of the Holy Books as well as to the traditions handed down to us from the earliest days. Nevertheless, these days I am more worried that I might find a Donatist schism coming up behind me than I am about an Arian falsehood on the streets of Roma. I do not envy our brothers in the East, in Alexandria, Antiochia, Nicaea who have to deal with these pernicious teachings.

‘To answer your question, there is little news from Nicaea. Last I heard from Vitus and Vicentius, Nicholas of Myra got in a dispute with Arius and struck him, but had some sort of miraculous gift-giving from Jesus and His Mother. The account was a bit muddled, unfortunately. A few other things have been dealt with, such as the date of the Christian Passover. They say that they have spoken with Macarius of Aelia and Eustathius of Antiochia who are discussing what sort of statement the overseers will have to make and how to anathematise Arius’ teachings.’

‘Thank you, sir. I shall leave you now.’

‘Wait, Julius, I had a strange dream last night, and I wonder if you could shed light on it.’

‘I am no Joseph or Daniel, sir, but I shall try.’

Silvester recounted the dream in detail, reciting the statement of faith precisely. Julius looked at him. He looked up at the ceiling for a bit. He stroked his beard.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘all I can think is this. There is a possibility that the West shall be a guardian of the truth, and that many will look to you and other vicars of the Rock in settling their theological disputes. But more important than that, I would say that perhaps it is the act of worship itself that is the safeguard of our theology. We will keep the Assembly safe and pure and holy only from drawing near to God, only by celebrating the sacred mysteries. Theology is to be embodied in our worship, in our prayers, in our lives, and not simply in our words and thought life. Why else would you be found answering a theological question with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and a form thereof including a statement of the true faith?’

‘Thank you, Julius. I shall remember you in my prayers. Do pray for me as well.’

‘I do, every day, Father.’ Having kissed Silvester’s ring, Julius disappeared into the streets of Roma, the greatest city in the world.

Makarios

The Council of Nikaia, St. Sozomen's Church, Galata, Cyprus. My photo.

Re-post from 2008.

Makarios (the first on the left) stood in the midst of the gathering. He was one of the notables in the theological disputes. He and Eustathios of Antiokheia had been comparing the baptismal formulae of their cities, trying to come up with a statement to which the overseers could agree and put a stop to Arios’ destructive preaching.

However, this was a day to deal with other business. They were all in ready agreement with the condemnation of Origen’s self-mutilating solution to the problem of lust; such men as who purposefully made themselves eunuchs were by no means allowed to become or remain shepherds of Jesus’ flock. Nonetheless, those who were made so by a physician, due to illness, or by the cruelty of barbarians, ought surely to be admitted into holy orders if they so desire? There was assent all around to this.

Makarios stood up. “At the urging of various dear friends,” he began, “the following was brought to the revered Konstantinos, and thence, I, too, had private audience with his greatness. As many know, the dignity of the city I oversee, Aelia Capitolina, has much suffered in the past centuries. Thirty years after our Lord’s ascent on high, Titus and his men sacked and spoliated the city. And forty years further, the soldiers of Roma, when the people rebelled once more, destroyed it, until not one stone was left upon another, save one retaining wall, which once held the glorious Temple. But I am here, brothers, to say to you that the dignity of Mount Zion, of the city of Jerusalem, is to be restored!” He noted his arch-overseer, Eusebios of Kaisereia, sigh.

“Is it not shameful, dear friends,” he continued, “that the city within which our Lord and Saviour, the Anointed Jesus, walked is devoid of any prestige and dignity at all? This was the city in former days, in times of old, where God Himself chose to dwell. Glorious things of you are spoken, Zion city of our God! calls out the psalmist. He made it His holy habitation, where the prophets proclaimed His word to the people. In this city, the words of the Holy Scriptures were put down for generations to come. He was worshipped in Jerusalem, sacrificed to, praised in song and dance.

“From the days of King David, Jerusalem was the chief city of God’s chosen people, of the descendants of Father Abraham, the people to whom His divine Light was given, to whom He disclosed His revelation. And from the line of King David himself, overseers, came our Lord. He visited Jerusalem, walked in Jerusalem, preached in Jerusalem, died in Jerusalem. In a garden near Jerusalem, Jesus, the High King of Heaven come down, was betrayed by the kiss of a friend. In a cold sepulchre, they laid the body, the lifeless corpse of the One who was life itself.

“Yet by that death, as we all know, He trampled upon death, and slew it with the lightning flash of His Godhead!” Makarios paused, knowing he had used the much-disputed word. “And in Jerusalem, He rose from the dead. Fifty days later, our Lord the Spirit descended in Jerusalem. The apostles were sent forth from Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, Stephanos, whose blood is beautiful and calls out to the Lord for justice, was the first witness to die for the cause of the Good News. In Jerusalem, as well, Jacobos was beheaded. In Jerusalem, the very first gathering of overseers, of the apostles themselves, was assembled to deal with a divisive issue. And thus, in Jerusalem, as now here in Nikaia, the true Faith was upheld and the unity of the Assembly was maintained.

“Yet — oh sorrow — this city, the place where God Himself walked, where His incarnate foot trod upon the soil, rock, and grass, where His Blood was poured out for us men and for our salvation, is not honoured, but is only a minor city. The great sites of our faith, brothers, have been sorely neglected. Yet I tell you we know where the upper room of our Lord’s last supper is. We know where his holy sepulchre is. For generations, His disciples have walked the way from Gabbatha to Golgotha, sowing tears for their sins which led their Lord there. And we have suffered in Jerusalem as in all cities. And we have died, and our blood has run in the streets of Aelia Capitolina as did His.

“Let us, therefore, reclaim this place where the glory of Lord was shown forth so perfectly unto us! Let us restore the dignity where the fullness of His revelation was made known! Let us, in honour of that His precious death and glorious resurrection, give this city of Aelia Capitolina, that is, Jerusalem, a dignity and honour becoming so important a place to our abiding faith.”

Makarios stood silent. There was perhaps, by the dripping of the water clock, a pause of three seconds. And then Eustathios stood and noted his approval of the plan. Nikolaos of Myra also seemed pleased. He saw a fellow in a hat resembling a beehive nodding his agreement. And was that Metrophanes of Byzantion applauding in the corner? No, Makarios must have been seeing things. Most important of all, Konstantinos sat smiling, resplendent.

“But,” he noted, “we must remember the dignity and honour and history of Kaisareia, the city under whose administration Aelia falls. This council has noted how to uphold respect for those assembled, and Kaisareia is the administrative centre of the province. Whatever this holy gathering decides regarding Aelia, we must not forget the dignity of Eusebios and his city.”

Makarios then sat down. Not that he felt Eusebios had that much dignity, with his tendencies towards Arios’ teachings. He just knew that being irenic rather than polemic was the course of prudence, especially when one is taking dignity from someone else.

Little did innocent Makarios realise what the results of his impassioned speech and audience with the revered Konstantinos would be — pilgrims and basilicas, gold and glory, monks and holy places; a visit from Lady Helena, resulting in the discovery of the Cross itself! His head would have swum at Nikaia had he even thought of it. But he did not; he thought only of the importance of Aelia and its role in the history of salvation.

* * *

Canon VII of the Council of Nicaea, the result of Makarios’ action, viewable on the CCEL: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf214.vii.vi.viii.html

The Catholic Encyclopedia, “Macarius”: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09482a.htm

Eusebius of Caesarea. Life of Constantine. Averil Cameron and Stuart G. Hall, translators and commentators. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999. pp. 132, 282.

Waugh, Evelyn. Helena. Chicago: Loyola Press, 2005. An excellent novel about the life of Helena, Constantine’s mother. The chapter “The Innocence of Bishop Macarius” was the inspiration for this telling of the tale.

Nikolaos, Part I

The Council of Nikaia, St. Sozomen's Church, Galata, Cyprus. My photo.

Re-post from 2008.

Nikolaos (the one in the middle of the cluster to the right of Konstantinos) sat in the yellow sandstone cell. While his monastic lifestyle had accustomed him to harsh living conditions, he had normally sought them of his own will; being in prison was not the same as being a monk. He breathed in and out, trying to focus his thoughts, praying the name “Jesus” with each movement of his lungs.

“Jesus,” he breathed slowly in, focussing on the wall across from him. “Jesus,” he breathed out again. He had heard of some contemplatives who had made the prayer longer, larger, fuller, a declaration: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Nikolaos had found that simply calling out the Name of the Anointed Jesus was all he needed, that by so doing the risen, ascended Lord of Creation came near to him and indwelt his being, making him full. It helped quiet his thoughts and bring him to a place where the praise of God could truly be always on his lips. “Jesus,” he uttered once more.

But now — now his thoughts were having trouble calming down. He had been shocked to hear of the declarations of Elder Arios of Alexandreia, who declared, “There was when he was not.” How could that be true? The Anointed Jesus is Lord, so all the Assembly of God, so all the New Jerusalem scattered across the world declared. And there is only one Lord, and he is God himself. For Nikolaos, it was simple — Jesus the Anointed was God enfleshed; he was the . . . the God-Man! God had taken flesh up into himself; by this action, all humanity was able to be redeemed. If the Anointed Jesus were not God, then we are not saved. Nikolaos would be doomed; so also would be Arios. As the letters, messengers, and travellers passed through Myra, Nikolaos, as overseer, had learned of Arios and of the condemnation of his teachings in Antiokheia.

When the summons to Nikaia came, Nikolaos could not stay away from Bithynia. He set out to this gathering of all the overseers of the world. He was, as anyone would be, impressed by the grandeur of Konstantinos, his palace, and the houses he had built for the Lord in the city. But, as a monk, he saw that no matter how much gold was poured out, no matter how many gems were embroidered in garments, no matter how many beautiful images were painted, the hearts of men are still corrupted and corruptible. Indeed, amidst the 300 overseers, he was surprised that there was less virtue and discipline than he had anticipated — almost as though the brief years of what some called the Triumph had already corroded the very fabric of the Assembly.

The meetings troubled Nikolaos still further. Arios was not the only one who held that the Anointed was a created being, that the Word was begotten and created! This was heresy; Jesus was begotten, not made. Arios’ supporters explained that at the base of everything in the universe lay one uncreated, unbegotten Being who had no beginning and who was free from the vicissitudes of change. This Being had one substance and one divine nature. This Being was the Being to whom the Anointed Jesus referred as Father. There could be but one divine nature, they argued, since there could be a single divine substance; if Jesus has a divine nature as well, he must share it with the Father. Either this produces two gods or it reproduces the teachings of Sabellios, which confuse the persons of the Son and the Father. Surely, they argued, none of the overseers present was a heretical Sabellian, or so uncultured as to say that somehow there could be two divine natures and somehow a single substance! This would go against the clearly demonstrable rules of philosophy!

“We are not here,” declared Nikolaos when they had continued on long enough about Platon and Aristoteles, “to discuss philosophy. Philosophy is created by man, by pagans; it is flawed. What has Athenai to do with Jerusalem? We are here to discuss the infallible truths of the Book and the Traditions of the Holy Ones! What do these tell us? Did not Holy Johannes, companion of our Lord, write, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’? How could the Word both be God and not God at once? Does not your Aristoteles warn against contradiction in his teachings on philosophy?”

An Arian had stood and said, “According to the Book of Proverbs, the Son of God was created before time and everything was created through him in his guise as the Wisdom of God; he is pre-eminent before the rest of creation; he goes by the names God, Word, Wisdom, and Strength due to the grace of God, not due to his very nature.” [1]

Nikolaos interrupted, “But does Holy Paulos not write in his letter to Philippi that he was in very nature God?”

“Yes,” came the Arian response, “but Holy Paulos continues and declares that the Anointed did not consider equality with God something to be grasped. But the Anointed had his will perfect with the Father for all time, despite his changeability; thus, the Father granted him glory before all worlds. He is subordinate in terms of rank, authority, and glory. The Son is alien and dissimilar in every way to the essence and selfhood of the Father. He is a creature.”

“I am a creature; you are a creature; this very building we overseers stand is a creature.”

“And so is the Anointed.”

“A creature? Like me? How in Hades could a creature save a fallen creature?! This is sheer self-contradictory madness!” Nikolaos turned his blazing monastic eyes to Arios amidst the elders and holy servants. As he did so, he stepped from among the overseers and mindlessly walked across the gathered council. “I had no idea your idiocy ran so deep, Arios! If you are not excommunicated by the end of this for your deep blasphemy and hatred of the truth, I shall turn in my holy orders as overseer in the Anointed’s Holy Assembly! For there is nothing holy about an assembly in which such destructive evils as your teachings can abide! You are a scoundrel and an anti-Christ, heretic!”

And then the peace-loving ascetic overseer from Myra, a man who believed only in doing good works for the Anointed and his people, did the unthinkable. Using his right hand, the old man struck Arios with a back-handed blow. Elder Arios stumbled backwards, Nikolaos’ ring of office leaving a mark on his face.

Thus Nikolaos found himself in turmoil in his cell, trying his utmost to pray the Jesus Prayer, seeking the place of rest, of inner peace, where he could abide with his Maker and calm his thoughts. As the cell grew dark, he lay down on the straw pallet and drifted into sleep in a strange city, suffering the harsh justice of the Revered Konstantinos.

* * *

[1] All discussions of Arian theology are based on Hubertus Drobner, The Fathers of the Church, A Comprehensive Introduction, trans. Siegfried S. Schatzmann. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007, pp. 235-237.

Konstantinos

Council of Nikaia, St. Sozomen's Church, Galata, Cyprus (my photo)

This is a re-post from 2008. The rest of the series to follow!

Konstantinos (he’s the one in the middle) strode into the midst of the greatest gathering of overseers that the Holy Assembly of the Anointed Jesus had ever seen. There were between 200 and 300 overseers present, he understood. On the fringes were the elders and blessed servants as well as the faithful themselves, come here to Nikaia to see what the overseers would decide. Amongst them he noted the notorious elder from Alexandria who had started all this trouble — one whom the Revered Konstaninos had already berated as being a wild animal.[1] As he walked, a hush fell over the gathering, which was exactly what he had intended.

Before him had come his retinue, who themselves were impressive, arrayed in notable Eastern finery. But now Konstantinos the Victor, Greatest, Revered, the sole ruler of East and West was in their midst, and they stood in awe of him. He was clad in a purple robe that had gold interwoven amidst its threads as well as ornamenting it variously. Gems adorned it and glittered under the light from the candles and the windows. The effect was notable, for he seemed to Eusebios, Overseer of Kaisareia, to be emitting light itself — once more, exactly in line with Konstantinos’ intention. Nevertheless, in so august a company, he did not hold his head high as he would have with his soldiers; nor did he perceptibly cast his piercing eagle’s gaze upon them. Rather, he walked with his eyes down, and even with a bit of a blush on his face — what am I, a soldier, and politician, doing here, in the midst of men whom my predecessors persecuted so harshly?

He passed by the seats arrayed on either side of him, noting Makarios of Jerusalem, Eustathios of Antiokheia, Alexandros of Alexandreia, a fellow in a hat that resembled a beehive, and Alexandros of Byzantion. He reached his golden chair, set on a raised dais at the far end, and turned, standing in front of it and facing the overseers. Then the light of East and West sat.

Eusebios of Nikomedeia stood and opened the proceedings with a speech and a song of praise to the Supreme. Then all eyes were once more on Konstantinos. He gazed upon them all, eyes shining and loving, as he stood to speak. They had come to settle two disputes that were tearing at the fabric of The Anointed’s Holy Assembly, the date of the Christian Passover and the troubling teaching of Elder Arios from Alexandria.

Konstantinos had lost much sleep over the issue surrounding Arios — not, mind you, for the theological implications but for the fabric of the Assembly, so delicate and so recently brought out of darkness into light, for the union of the holy ones; theology was secondary to peace and peaceableness; Konstantinos had even implied in his letters that, “There was when he was not,” was so trivial a matter that it would have been better for Arios not to have brought it up. Why had he not kept silent when Alexandros asked him the question? Or, indeed, how could he not see that the Anointed Jesus had to be eternal with God the Father, that he could not be a creature, for how could a creature save us?

The fabric was being torn once more, as the followers of Donatus had already torn it. Now was to be the triumph of the Assembly, not its downfall! No, Konstantinos would not allow this Holy Apostolic Assembly to be torn asunder. Not now, not after the defeat of Licinius, not after the Lord’s property had been returned. Not here, in Nikaia, Bithynia, thirteen days before the Kalends of Iunios, 1078 years after the founding of Roma.[2]

The time for polemic was over, for the overseers, guided by the Holy Spirit, would choose truth and properly describe the nature of the Anointed Jesus. Order in other matters would be established, and the Assembly would operate as smoothly as possible and the Peace of Roma would be maintained. And so, with so many thoughts whirling through his mind on this first day of the first world-wide council (from Hosius of Cordoba to men of Arabia), Konstantinos addressed the assembled overseers in Latin, his native tongue. Eusebios of Kaisereia recalls that it ran somewhat as follows:

It was the object of my prayers, my friends, to share in your company, and now that I have received this, I know I must express my gratitude to the King of all, because in addition to everything else he has allowed me to see this, which is better than any other good thing; I mean, to receive you all gathered together and to observe one unanimous opinion shared by all.

Let no jealous enemy ruin our prosperity; now that the war of the tyrants against God has been swept away by the power of God the Saviour, let not the malignant demon encompass the divine law with blasphemies by other means. For to me internal division in the Church of God is graver than any war or fierce battle, and these things appear to cause more pain than secular affairs.

When therefore I won victories over enemies through the favour and support of the Supreme, I considered that nothing remained but to give thanks to God, and to rejoice also with those who had been liberated by him through our agency. When contrary to all expectation I learnt of your division, I did not defer attention to the report, but, praying that this too might be healed through my ministration, I immediately sent for you all.

I rejoice to see your gathering, and I consider that I shall be acting most in accordance with my prayers, when I see you all with your souls in communion, and one common, peaceful harmony prevailing among you all, which you, as person consecrated to God, ought yourselves to be announcing to others.

So do not delay, my friends, ministers of God, and good servants of the common Lord and Saviour of us all, to begin now to bring the causes of the division between you into the open, and to loosen all shackles of dispute by the laws of peace. Thus you will be achieve what is pleasing to the God of all, and you will give extreme gratification to me, your fellow servant.[3]

Konstantinos sat down, and the overseers began the debate in earnest. He was to watch over the proceedings until thirteen days before the Kalends of Iulios,[4] and bring them to a resolution and a statement of belief, even suggesting — though he was not a theologian or philosopher himself — that they say that the Anointed Jesus was of one substance with the Father — in Latin consubstantialis, in Greek homoousios.

Throughout the rest of his earthly life, Konstantinos saw that Nikaia’s formulation held the field throughout his domain. Little did he know what would happen in the years to come, when the whole earth would groan to find itself following Arios, or the debates that would arise due to the very word he introduced, some saying that it made inroads for the teachings of Sabellios. But in Nikaia, upright teaching and upright worship won the day, paving the road for the rest of the Assembly’s understanding of the Three-in-One to be put into words, thoughts, and statements, casting a fence around belief and fostering true worship.


[1] Cameron, Averil & Stuart G. Hall, Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 251.

[2] That is to say, 12 days before; May 20, AD 325.

[3] Eusebius, (Cameron & Hall) 125-126.

[4] June 19.

Origen and the Development of Orthodoxy

I have been reading Origen’s On First Principles recently, and a thought came to me which had come to me before (you can thank me for being suitably vague later). This newly-recurring thought is that Origen and “Origenism” are the formative source and root for Christian controversy and Orthodoxy.

Now, you’re probably going to tell me that it’s actually biblical interpretation, such as the interrelation of Proverbs 8:22 with John 1. And you’d be right. But whose biblical interpretation do you think everyone was arguing about?

Origen’s.

Case One: Arianism. Origen’s Christology, as represented both in On First Principles and his Commentary on John is subordinationist, and, although he does not believe, “There was when he was not,” he at times calls Christ “created” and could be read through an Arian viewpoint, especially given the lack of homoousios theology. However, in On First Principles, Origen is also fond of the image of the Son being like the rays of light from the sun — this is an image favoured by Athanasius, the great opponent of Arianism. Hm…

Case Two: Pneumatomachianism (aka Macedonianism, literally “Spirit-fighter-ism“). Origen’s theology of the Holy Spirit is relatively undeveloped, in my opinion. When, in On First Principles, he comes to discussing the Spirit, he gets himself sidetracked with a discussion about spirit more broadly. He once again has a subordinationist view, saying that the Father’s being overflows into the Son who overflows into the Spirit.  The Spirit at times feels more like a personification of spirit, not necessarily a self-subsisting person or hypostasis.

This ambiguity of the treatment of the Third Person of the Holy Trinity ended up with Origenists such as the Pneumatomachians arguing against the Spirit’s divinity and other Origenists such as Didymus the Blind in On the Holy Spirit arguing for the Spirit’s divinity.

Case Three: The First Origenist Controversy. This controversy was specifically about Origen and some of his less … mainline … teachings and his approach to Sacred Scripture; some people (Epiphanius of Salamis, Jerome) were certain that he was an out-and-out heretic and deserved condemnation, and that his allegorical interpretations went too far. Others (John Chrysostom, John Cassian, Rufinus of Aquileia) argued that Origen was largely orthodox. In the heat of it all, Chrysostom ended up dead, Rufinus and Jerome ruined their friendship, and the golden age of Egyptian monasticism was gone forever.

His defenders found precisely where he was worth fighting for, and his opponents found the places where he was worth attacking. What constitutes orthodoxy was, as a result, more clearly defined, but, thanks, in the West at least, largely to Rufinus’ translations of Origen and John Cassian’s work in Gaul, allegorical readings of Scripture were never fully lost.

Case Four: The Cappadocian Fathers. Gregory Thaumaturgus was a student of Origen, and the Cappadocians (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa) were students of Thaumaturgus. They were also involved in the later stages of both the Arian and Pneumatomachian Controversies. Gregory of Nyssa was able to produce theological writings after the triumph of Nicene Orthodoxy in 381.

Within the bounds of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan understanding of the Trinity, these three Orthodox Fathers par excellence produced Trinitarian theology that follows the trajectory set out by Origen. Origen, unlike his Platonist predecessors, rooted the being of God (His ontology) in being a Father, not in being a Creator. This meant that there never was a time when the Father lacked the Son. It also meant that the Godhead is a distinct being from creation who depends not at all upon the created order. It also means that the very root and source of the universe is rooted in communion (see John Zizioulas, Being As Communion to have your mind blown on this count). These were points taken up by Athanasius, but their nuances were really explored and set forth for us by the Cappadocians.

Case Five: The Second Origenist Controversy. This was a controversy about a number of Origen’s cosmological statements that were being espoused by a group of “fanatical” Palestinian monks. In 553, in meetings before the Fifth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople II), Justinian and the Fathers determined that certain Origenist statements were outside the bounds of orthodoxy, and in the Acts of the Council itself, Origen and Evagrius are condemned outright as heretics.

This meant that such teachings as celestial bodies having souls or apocatastasis (seriously, get into Patristics for the awesome terminology) which teaches that at the end of all things God will reconcile all rational beings to Himself (presumably the Devil as well — Evagrius certainly thinks so) — such teachings are officially outside of orthodoxy. It also means that very few of Origen’s writings survive, and far fewer of Evagrius Ponticus’ — although one of his writings survived under St. Basil the Great’s name, another under Nilus. People will circulate what they wish, no matter how many books you burn.

In the end, so many of the big controversies of the early centuries of Christianity revolved around Origen, his understanding of Scripture and of God, and the Church’s understanding of Origen. He’s not exactly one of the early Christian theologians for one to start with, but he’s definitely worth reading, and certainly important.