Judgement and Consequences for the Western Church

Martyrdom of St Margaret, Santo Stefano Rotondo, Rome, early 1600s

One of my favourite moments in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is the appearance in the entry for 1066 that the French are God’s judgement on the English for their sins. Obviously, the reference is to William the Bastard and the Norman conquest, but I still chuckle at the idea of all the French being God’s judgement on all the English for their sins.

Many Christians today are unlikely to see such events of secular politics in terms of spiritual failures. Those who are sophisticated enough will hopefully reject such thinking because we think along the lines of St Augustine’s City of God, where he delineates the reality that good things and bad things happen to pagans and Christians alike.

Nevertheless, my thoughts have meandered down that way tonight, provoked by starting into the chapter about Eusebius in Frances M. Young’s From Nicaea to Chalcedon (2nd ed.). As soon as Young hit Eusebius’s own living through the Diocletianic Persecution of 303-313, I recalled his account of the martyrs of Palestine and what he attributed this persecution to.

Eusebius believed that the final, and worst, persecution by the Roman government of the Christians was the result of the Christians becoming prosperous, worldly, soft — so God delivered them up to the Romans. As with so much in Eusebius, this is partly a matter of pointing to his own day, in effect: Just because things are nice with Constantine doesn’t mean we can let our guard down. Remember Diocletian. Do not become worldly or sinful.

What’s interesting is that the causal link between God using the persecution as discipline/punishment/judgement of the Church was that the problems God pinpointed were specifically those of the church.

Whether or not we can follow Eusebius in this is not the point. In my smarter moments, I follow Augustine. But sometimes I wonder. Either way, Eusebius’ focus is different from those Christians today who see God’s judgement upon the world in secular affairs.

These Christians say that COVID-19 or natural disasters or the 2008 recession or anything going wrong is the result of God’s judgement on the West for turning its back on Him, that it is the result of gay marriage or abortion or transgenderism or Hollywood or not supporting Israel or something being done largely by those outside the Church.

Consider a different scenario, instead. Rather than blaming the world out there for its problems, consider the world in the church. Let’s consider the hemorrhaging faith of Canadians. Let’s consider the not-completely-unreal possibility of soft totalitarianism. Let’s consider what a friend of mine calls “pseudo-nationalist racist populism.” These things are all sources of danger for people who choose to stand publicly for the historic Christian faith, dangers coming from both the right and the left.

And my thesis is simply this: If they are not the judgement of God on us for our own faithlessness, our own worldliness, our own sin — they are the perfectly natural historical consequence.

It may not be persecution. It may not be guided by providence as discipline.

But it may still be our own damn fault. (Literally.)

Pope of the Month: St Pontian (230-235)

Apologies for being remiss with my monthly popes! I’m still in recovery from learning, as posted here, that St Hippolytus was probably not anti-pope to Callistus I, Urban I, Pontian, and Anterus. My first step of recovery was to go earlier than Hippolytus to St Victor I; today, I give you one of Hippolytus’ contemporaries, Pope Pontian, whom tradition says was martyred alongside Hippolytus.

Not a lot is actually known about Pope Pontian. During his tenure as Bishop of Rome, Origen was condemned in Egypt by Demetrius of Alexandria, but whether Pontian corroborated the Egyptian synods’ rulings or not is mere conjecture. Indeed, so little is known about him that I feel no guilt in simply giving you our earliest source for him, Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History. First, Book 6.23.3:

3. While these things were in progress, Urbanus,who had been for eight years bishop of the Roman church, was succeeded by Pontianus, and Zebinus succeeded Philetus in Antioch.

Later, 6.28-29:

Chapter XXVIII.—The Persecution under Maximinus.

The Roman emperor, Alexander, having finished his reign in thirteen years, was succeeded by Maximinus Cæsar. On account of his hatred toward the household of Alexander, which contained many believers, he began a persecution, commanding that only the rulers of the churches should be put to death, as responsible for the Gospel teaching. Thereupon Origen composed his work On Martyrdom, and dedicated it to Ambrose and Protoctetus, a presbyter of the parish of Cæsarea, because in the persecution there had come upon them both unusual hardships, in which it is reported that they were eminent in confession during the reign of Maximinus, which lasted but three years. Origen has noted this as the time of the persecution in the twenty-second book of his Commentaries on John, and in several epistles.

Chapter XXIX.—Fabianus, who was wonderfully designated Bishop of Rome by God.

1. Gordianus succeeded Maximinus as Roman emperor; and Pontianus, who had been bishop of the church at Rome for six years, was succeeded by Anteros. After he had held the office for a month, Fabianus succeeded him.

During Maximinus’ persecution, Pontian and Hippolytus were exiled to Sardinia where both of them died. Before dying, Pontian abdicated from the episcopate; the first Roman bishop to do so. This, according to J. N. D. Kelly, is our earliest secure date in papal history: 28 September 235, as recorded in the fourth-century Liberian Catalogue.

They were later interred at Rome — an excavation discovered Pontian’s grave in the catacomb of San Callisto in 1909.

Because of the dispelling of the old Anti-pope Hippolytus fable (still believed in Kelly’s A Dictionary of Popes), there is not much more to say about Pontian. He was Bishop of Rome for five years, and then died in exile during a persecution.

The few notes worth highlighting are that persecutions were rarely targeted at the entire Christian population — Maximinus Thrax’s persecution was directed at leaders, especially bishops. Note also to take Eusebius’ account of there being many Christians in Alexander Severus’ household and this being the reason for Maximinus’ persecution with caution. Finally, while not everyone buried in the catacombs was a martyr, some were.

Notes

This is largely based on J. N. D. Kelly and Michael J. Walsh, A Dictionary of Popes, 2nd ed. Oxford: 2010.

The translation of Eusebius is that of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2, Vol. 1; trans. Dr. Arthur C. McGiffert and Dr. Ernest C. Richardson.

The multiple media/genres of classic/historic Christianity

booksforwebThis blog/site is about the promotion of Classic Christianity as a way to engage more deeply with the Triune God, to re-engage with Scripture, to increase in devotion to Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and so forth. As an antidote to spiritual drought, seeking the wisdom of the faithful over the many ages of Christianity.

I tend to divide things by temporal period, probably because of my inclinations as an historian. So I think in such terms as ‘Patristic’, ‘Medieval/Byzantine’, ‘Renaissance/Reformation/Counter-Reformation/Early Modern’ and ‘Modern.’ Mostly I post about subjects Patristic and Medieval — write what you know!

But the world of Classic Christianity, although something of a seamless whole if we watch for the common threads of the tapestry that the Great Tradition is woven into, presents itself to us in many ways — through texts, through images, through actions, and through music.

Texts

Christianity is a text-based religion, and not just because the Most Holy Trinity has revealed Himselves to us through the Bible. Texts are the surest way of transmitting tradition to further generations, for one thing. They are also a way for individuals to order their thoughts, organise their prayers, remember themselves, and share with others far away their own discoveries and beliefs. Furthermore, Eusebius of Caesarea established the story of Christian texts and their preservation, as well as the stories of Christian authors, as central to ecclesiastical history, a trend furthered by St Jerome’s De Viris Inlustribus.

As a result, there are many genres of text in Christianity, and it is these that mostly occupy my time here. Sometimes I go through phases where I discuss liturgy more, sometimes the ascetic/devotional writers, sometimes the theologians and exegetes. I go in phases, but each genre is an important part of learning the faith once delivered. If we ingest these texts thoroughly, we can be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Some of the genres available to us from the riches of the Great Tradition are:

  • Theology
  • Scriptural exegesis
  • Devotional/ascetic/mystical treatises (a form of lived theology described by practitioners)
  • Poetry
  • Liturgical texts (incl. hymns) and personal prayers
  • Saints’ lives (aka hagiography)
  • Ecclesiastical history

Images

Byzantine mosaic of the Transfiguration, 11th-12th c, Louvre (my pic)
Byzantine mosaic of the Transfiguration, 11th-12th c, Louvre (my pic)

Images have been hotly disputed throughout Christian history. Nonetheless, whether for adorning churches or the interiors of Books of Hours or the walls of living rooms, Christian tradition has a broad variety of images. These images are to be understood each in its own way, its own context, and its own uses. One does not view a Renaissance master the same way as a Byzantine icon, but that does not mean one is more ‘Christian’ than the other. Each has its value. Each can draw us up into Heaven.

Actions

Actions come to us through the texts, I suppose. But they are also transmitted through the lived practice of Christians in our midst. I learned how to do prostrations, placing my head to the floor, from Fr Raphael upstairs in his study in Edinburgh. I learned how to pray from my parents and other spiritual guides. I have learned of fasting from the pulpit, from examples of other Christians around me, from conversations, as well as from Scripture and non-scriptural texts. When we take these actions from the texts and the images and the lives of those around us and incorporate them into our own devotion to God, we are living tradition, we are entering into that cosmic union of all faithful people of all times and places that is the mystical Body of Christ.

Music

I probably blog about music the least, although I might sometimes post a YouTube video of a hymn or chant I like. But I grew up the son of a piano teacher, am the brother of a composer, and play the clarinet myself, besides spending a certain amount of my youth in youth choirs. Music, for me, is much harder to put into words. Indeed, perhaps simply sharing a YouTube video is the best approach. Nonetheless, sacred music imbues the whole history of western music; it is where western music history classes begin, with Gregorian Chant; then the great music of the Renaissance, followed by the Christian musical tradition in Vivaldi, Bach, Haydn, Handel, Mozart, even Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, and Bruckner.

When I attend a sung Eucharist at St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh, it is in the midst of that music that I lose myself and enter into that moment completely, casting all other thoughts away. It is then that my heart can most easily soar to heaven. My spirit sings as they sing.

How will you engage with the tradition today?

Pope of the Month: St Victor I (also episcopal monarchy & dating Easter)

Two years ago, I decided to include a montly pope in with the Saints of the Week, but only managed three, St Peter, St Clement, and then alleged Anti-pope St Hippolytus, who I later learned wasn’t an anti-pope at all! Since the Saint of the Week returned the first week of November, enjoy the Pope of the Month on the last!

This month, we go back to the days before St Hippolytus to St Victor (Bp of Rome c. 189-198) — a contender for being the first ‘Bishop’ of Rome. One of the most important developments in church organization was that of the monarchical episcopacy, which emerged in the years following the deaths of the Apostles or leaders of the apostolic age in different places at different rates. The letters of St Ignatius of Antioch (d. 117) reveal that Antioch at the time had an episcopacy that seems to have presided over a board of presbyters. Ignatius as bishop had a liturgical function, a role in protecting orthodoxy, and a prophetic role in leading the church. His letters also show us that many churches in Asia Minor had men called bishops at their heads as well.

The story of the church at Rome is not uncomplicated in this regard. Was Clement the bishop the way we think of them, or one bishop among several? The Roman church was a large body of believers from early days and also relatively wealthy — wealth that was used by the church functionaries to feed the poor and support the ministers. They seem by the time of Clement to see themselves as a united church, not a varied selection of different communities.

1 Clement and The Shepherd of Hermas reveal a church structure that had a group of officials at its head whose titles were, in the last first and early second centuries, still fluid; is there much difference between a presbyter who presides and the episkopoi? By the middle of the second century, the various churches of the cities of the Mediterranean world were in increasing contact, and this necessitated mutual recognition of leadership. This was the time of proto-orthodoxy seeing various risks to its integrity and the doctrinal soundness of the church in the various groups labelled ‘Gnostic’ as well as the divergent Roman teacher Marcion.

Shortly before Victor’s episcopate in Rome, St Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, gives his famous Apostolic Succession (about which I’ve blogged here) of the city of Rome in Against the Heresies 3.3. Irenaeus finishes with Eleutherius, Victor’s predecessor. This strongly suggests that some form of episcopal monarchy was already established in Rome by the time of Eleutherus’ episcopate. The shape of the episcopacy was yet to be fully determined, however — was he a president over his fellow presbyters or what?

Yes, that Commodus

Victor comes onto the scene around 189 upon Eleutherus’ death. Victor exercised episcopal authority in a variety of ways. According to the Refutation of All Heresies, Book 9, Chapter VII, Victor used influence at the court of the Emperor Commodus to secure the release of Christian prisoners who were working in the mines of Sardinia. We learn from Eusebius (5.28.6) that he also excommunicated one Theodotus the Tanner for denying Christ’s divinity. Victor is using the office of bishop, that much is clear.

He is most famous, however, for his involvement in the Quartodeciman Controversy — a debate on the date of Easter. In this controversy, we see the international role that bishops play in each other’s churches, as well as the fact that the ancient, ‘primitive’ church was an international community that sought unity in all things.

Quartodecimans were Christians who celebrated Easter on 14 Nisan, at the same time as Jewish Passover. The primarily lived in Asia Minor. It seems to me that their tradition is probably as old as the accepted celebration of Easter on a Sunday. They included in their ranks the celebrated Bishop of Smyrna, St Polycarp. In the days of Anicetus, one of Victor’s predecessors, Polycarp visited Rome, and Anicetus received him warmly, despite their difference over the date of Easter.

In the mid- to late 100s, however, the debate heated up. The date of Easter is a big deal throughout Church history, cropping up here, then again around the time of the Council of Nicaea, then again in the 400s, and then famously at the Synod of Whitby in the 600s (my thoughts on that here). Many of today’s Christians probably wonder what the big deal is — who cares which day people celebrate Easter?

Well, two immediate thoughts. One is an official reason: Traditionally, people fast before Easter. To have some feasting while others are still fasting is just in appropriate. Second, Easter is the chief feast of the Christian year. It is the reason we are Christians. Jesus rose from the dead. To fail to celebrate Easter at the same time is to compromise Christian unity that is visible in the feasts.

When the issue of the divergent Asian celebration of Easter heated up, Eusebius says:

synods and conferences of bishops were convened, and without a dissentient voice, drew up a decree of the Church, in the form of letters addressed to Christians everywhere, that never on any day other than the Lord’s Day should the mystery of the Lord’s resurrection from the dead be celebrated, and that on that day alone we should observe the end of the Paschal fast. (Ecclesiastical History, 5.23, trans. Williamson)

The Asian bishops protested, and wrote in their defence that long custom and luminaries such as the Apostles Philip and John and the martyr Polycarp were on their side. Victor responded harshly and, to quote Eusebius, ‘pilloried them in letters in which he announced the total excommunication of all his fellow-Christians there.’ (5.24; this is no doubt why some consider him Rome’s first true bishop)

Other bishops felt that Victor had gone too far by breaking communion with every single Asian Christian, especially since they seemed to be pretty much orthodox. Amongst the more easygoing bishops were Irenaeus who pointed out that cutting churches off because they follow tradition is a bad idea. As Eusebius says, Irenaeus lived up to his name, peacemaker, and corresponded with Victor and other bishops to find a peaceful resolution to the issue.

I guess it seemed to work, since Eusebius does not return to the issue — however, pockets of Quartodecimans continued to exist in Asia Minor for centuries, tradition being on their side.

There is not much more to say about Victor. The Oxford Dictionary of Popes by J. N. D. Kelly simply closes:

According to St Jerome, he was the author of Latin works of moderate quality. Reports that he was a martyr and was buried near St Peter are routine and should be rejected. Feast 28 July.

Eustathios

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

Re-post from 2008.

Eustathios (in the middle of the left cluster) raised his eyebrows in surprise. He hoped he did not audibly gasp. He and Makarios had been disappointed in Eusebios of Kaisareia’s support of Arios, but now Eusebios was advocating a formula of belief that called Jesus “God of God” and “begotten of the Father before all the ages.”

Eusebios concluded the formulary of Kaisareia, “. . . who was made flesh for our salvation and lived among men, and suffered, and rose again on the third day, and ascended to the Father, and shall come again in glory to judge the living and dead; we believe also in one Holy Spirit.”

“Well,” said Makarios quietly from his right, “the Lord still performs marvels.”

“Or Eusebios still plays at politics,” responded Eustathios.

“Let us be charitable, brother,” chided Makarios gently, a smile playing on his lips.

“We need something stronger. Shall I recommend the formula of Antiokheia or Aelia?”

“Whichever you like, Eustathios.”

Eustathios stood. Assembled were many, many overseers. The council was drawing to a close. The proposed formula would set a standard for the Assembly; if one disagreed, then one was not following the true and right teaching handed down from the apostles. Nikolaos, Spyridon, Alexandros of Alexandreia, Aurelianos, Vitos and Vikentios the legates from Roma, Hosios of Cordoba, an elderly woman who always caught his eye, someone who looked suspiciously like Metrophanes of Byzantion (Eustathios had heard that Metrophanes was too ill to travel, like Father Silvester), Arios himself, and Konstantinos all looked at him. Konstantinos nodded.

“I feel that the word-twisting logic games of the Arian philosophers would find a way around Kaisareia’s formula. I would like to recommend one that Makarios, Overseer of Aelia Capitolina,” Makarios raised his right hand in a little wave, “and I have put together. It is based largely on that of Antiokheia, but with additions from Aelia and our own prayerfully considered thoughts. It is as follows:

“I believe in one only true God, the Father almighty, creator of all creatures visible and invisible; and in our Lord Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son and first-begotten of all creation, born from Him before all ages and not made, true God from true God, of one substance with the Father, through Whom also the ages were framed and all things were made, Who because of us came and was born from the Virgin Mary, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and was buried, and one the third day rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and will come again to judge living and dead; and in one Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, Who spoke in the prophets, and in one baptism of repentance to the remission of sins, and in one holy Catholic church, and in the resurrection of the flesh, and in the life everlasting.**

“Thank you,” Eustathios sat back down. The Metrophanes-like man was clapping quietly in the corner.

“Let us go with that of Overseer Eustathios,” stated Spyridon.

Alexandros of Alexandreia stood, “I feel that Kaisareia’s is more elegant, but that the one proposed by Brother Eustathios has important phrases we need to combat the dark teachings of Arios.”

“We must use the powerful words of Antiokheia,” proclaimed Nikolaos. “To say that Jesus was not made is an important statement; this holy mystery of God’s Incarnation and the knowledge of Jesus as the uncreated light of the world are what set us apart!”

“I would like to recommend,” said Konstantinos, glimmering from his throne, “that we keep Eusebios’ baptismal formula as the basis for the statement to be produced here. However, I agree with Alexandros that certain phrases are important in settling this dispute and establishing peace throughout the Anointed’s Assembly. Let us be sure, therefore, to count Jesus as of one substance with the Father, as well as what Nikolaos says about him being begotten, not made.”

The debate moved on, phrases being added here and there, and then, at the instigation of men such as Nikolaos and Spyridon, anathemas added to the end, dealing specifically with Arios. After some thirty days of gathering for prayer and discussion, the largest gathering of overseers the world had ever seen produced the following:

We believe in one God the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, only-begotten, that is, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made, things in heaven and things on the earth; who for us men and for our salvation came down and was made flesh, and became man, suffered, and rose on the third day, ascended into the heavens, is coming to judge living and dead.

And in the Holy Spirit.

And those that say, “There was when he was not,” and “Before he was begotten he was not,” and that, “He came into being from what-is-not,” or those that allege, that the son of God is “Of another substance or essence” or “created” or “changeable” or “alterable,” these the Universal and Apostolic Assembly anathematizes.

Some stayed in Nikaia for Konstantinos’ twentieth anniversary celebrations. The more monkish went home immediately. Many thought it was over, that Arios and falsehood had been cleansed from the Assembly. It was only just beginning.

*Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963, pp. 24-25.

**J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds, 2nd ed. London: Longmans, 1960, pp. 184-185. The creed is the creed of Antioch as quoted by John Cassian up to “living and dead.” After that, it is the creed of Jerusalem. Kelly notes that Cassian’s creed, quoted in 430/31, has had Nicene phraseology added to it (185). The creed of Jerusalem, however, is “of fairly early date” (183). All three creeds are ancient baptismal formulas, just like the West’s “Apostle’s Creed.” That Sts. Macarius and Eustathius were working together in creedal formulation behind the scenes, see The Catholic Encyclopedia.