Tonight, I gave my run-through of Christology up to Chalcedon in 2 h or less with a Greek translator. Whew! Bits may make it here as I reflect on things. In the questions at the end, one of my friends asked me a good question:
It seems that these guys spent a lot of time fighting against heresy, did they have anything to say about sin?
I think this is a great question because people like me (and, thus, the scholarly world at large) spend a lot of time discussing ‘the Fathers’ and heresy and how orthodoxy was forged on the anvil of heresy.
But what about sin, for St. Pete’s sake?
First, these people saw heresy and sin as intimately related. If you are an incorrigible sinner, you are probably a heretic. And if you are a heretic, you are probably a sinner.
Second, some of these heretical or non-mainstream (I don’t count Manichees as heretics but as members of an entirely different religion) groups engaged in what the (proto-)orthodox thought of as sin. Some Gnostics felt that what you did in the body didn’t matter, so they became gluttonous sex-aholics, basically. According to the report of Pope Leo I’s investigation into Manichaeism in the City, the Manichees were having ritual sex with underage virgins.*
Nonetheless, these people were concerned about holiness and sin, and not just my perenially-mentioned Desert Fathers. Augustine, for example, discusses in his Confessions that one of the reasons he delayed baptism was his enjoyment of pre-marital sex, and one of his falls after conversion was having vivid sexual dreams at night.
Since some people think Augustine was an over-guilty, Platonic, sexual deviant, I also encourage you to look at John Chrysostom’s sermons for their moral and ethical exhortations about things like lying or going to horse races or reading your Bible. Or take Augustine’s famous opponent Pelagius who was first targetted by the likes of Augustine for his moral rigorism.
Heresy is the doctrinal deviation of the human mind from God’s truth.
Sin is the moral deviation of human action from God’s path.
Both of them are matters of importance to the ancient Christians.
*For the full horror of this abomination, recall that a woman in the ancient world was ‘of age’ when she turned 12. I am actually cringeing having divulged that information.
In some church bodies, it is a big deal to be within the Apostolic Succession, for which there are certain rules of succession that apply. Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy stand out in this way most prominently, but the Church of the East, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Coptic Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches, and the Armenian Apostolic Church all claim a direct line of episcopal descent from the apostles, as does the Anglican Communion, through the Archbishops of Canterbury, many of whom (as well as some others) were consecrated by the Popes of the Early Middle Ages.
This idea of a succession of church overseers crops up in Irenaeus (d. 202) for the first time, from what I can tell. In Against the Heresies, Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons in Gaul, calls to the reader’s mind the orthodoxy of the bishops of Rome, who can be traced from Peter (Pope of the Month here) through Linus and Clement (Pope of the Month here) to Eleutherus (c. 174-189).
Irenaeus is writing against various Gnostic sects and uses the apostolic origins of the bishops of Rome to demonstrate the truth of their teaching — if the apostles had secret knowledge, they would have passed it along to their successors. As it is, what is visible from the standard tradition of the Church of Rome in the days from Justin through Hippolytus (about whom read this but also this) is what we think of as ‘orthodoxy’ or, in some scholarly circles, ‘proto-orthodoxy.’ That is — not Gnosticism.
The purpose of the Apostolic Succession for Irenaeus is to demonstrate orthodoxy. The Bishops of Rome believe the following; they trace their teaching and authority from the Apostles; therefore, we can trust them. Tertullian, On the Prescription of Heretics, c. 190, uses the idea in a similar way.
This is important to consider. Today, Anglicans are passed over by the Church of Rome because a nineteenth-century committee decided we are outside of the Apostolic Succession. Anglicans are concerned about the viability of Methodist holy orders because John Wesley stepped outside the Apostolic Succession to promote their movement. The Orthodox at times claim that Protestants in breaking with Rome have removed themselves (ourselves?) from the Apostolic Succession and tradition, explaining the many strange journeys we have taken in the past 500 years.
For Irenaeus and Tertullian, however, Apostolic Succession is not simply a question of the validity of holy orders or whether a gathering of Christians is a true ‘Church’. Their concern with the Apostolic Succession is the guardianship of orthodoxy. We can trust these teachers to be true because we know where their teaching came from — especially important in a semi-oral culture that did most of its teaching orally. The Gnostics claim special knowledge but are distinct from the Apostles’ visible successors.
To take the question of the Methodists, we know where their tradition came from, and — even if their ordinations were irregular and uncanonical — we know that it is, in fact, within the bounds of orthodoxy. This seems to be the point of the earliest attestations of Apostolic Succession. Why, then, do we use it to exclude Methodists from our Communion?
If you sit down with a history of the Early Church or patristic doctrine such as Henry Chadwick’s The Early Church or J N D Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines, a picture emerges of an Egypt where before Nicaea the proto-orthodox look to have won out over the ‘Gnostics’ — ‘Arianism’ being a debate between factions within proto-orthodoxy, indeed amongst Origenists (see my post here).
Athanasius of Alexandria was the champion and forger of the Nicene cause. Antony was revered by him and many of the Fathers for his holiness. The monks of Egypt, with whom Athanasius hid in exile, were notoriously orthodox, doing the bidding of the unflinchingly orthodox Theophilus in desecrating pagan temples. Cyril is one of the ‘orthodox’ party’s strongest voices, as is his contemporary monastic fellow Shenoute of Atripe.
Egypt seems to be very much orthodox, especially by 381. And, once you’ve wrapped your mind around the Chalcedonian debate, perhaps they never even stopped (see my post on ‘Monophysites’).
Archaeology has been telling us a new story, perhaps a parallel one. From the sands of Egypt, most notably Nag Hammadi, have come a wealth of ‘Gnostic’ documents — frequently called ‘Gospels’, largely in Coptic. These documents are often from the fourth century, as is the momentarily-famous ‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’. Some are possibly later, such as the Books of Yu, themselves possibly representing an entirely different mystery religion of its own.
Having read Hurtado’s take on the business-card sized papyrus on Jesus’ wife and that of Gathercole, as well as Dr King’s own cautious statements in the flamboyant news reports, this is a document wherein Jesus mentions ‘My wife’ (or ‘my woman’). This may bring us into the realm of Gnostic allegory. It may bring us into a text trying to legimitate Christian marriage by saying Jesus was married (a point on which our earliest sources are silent).
What it brings us into is ‘Gnosticism’, a term applied to an amorphous group of religious beliefs and practices that are often related in some way to Christianity, sometimes claiming to represent the true tradition thereof, but not always, and not always necessarily related to the Church itself at all (as with one possible reading of the Books of Yu).
From what I’ve seen, by Nicaea, the mainstream or proto-orthodox Church — the institutional Christianity from which all of today’s churches descend — is not necessarily grappling with Gnosticism and Gnostics. They seem to have at times had their books, as described by Eusebius, when bishops hand over heretical scriptures to the Roman authorities. And their are, I understand, certain Valentinian influences on the letters of St Antony the Great and possibly elsewhere amongst the Desert Fathers.
But these appear to be just traces. Gnosticism seems not to be leaving a great impact upon the wider Church in the fourth century, unlike in the second when Irenaeus wrote his Against the Heresies in opposition to certain of these groups.
But they were still around. They left us papyri in the desert. Where did they go? How did they interact with their ‘orthodox’ neighbours? Did they eventually disappear through assimilation into mainstream Christianity after the official sponsoring thereof by the Emperors?
St. Antony the Great (251-356) is traditionally considered the “founder” of Christian monasticism, although this is a difficult thing to be sure of. One of the stories about him, in fact, tells of his pride about how he was the first-ever monk, and then an angel told him about this guy Abba Paul who’d been a hermit way longer than he had, so he went off to visit St. Paul the Hermit on St. Paul’s deathbed.
Whether or not he was the first or not, he was part of a movement to the desert that was beginning at the time. There had already been the occasional Egyptian person or village that would disappear into the desert whenever socio-economic times got hard. At the time went St. Antony started out for the tombs and the mountains of the Egyptian wilderness, people were first getting the idea of this retreat (anachoresis) as an act of Christian piety and part of the path self-renunciation as a replacement of martyrdom.
St. Antony’s anachoresis was inspired by the command of Jesus to the Rich Young Ruler to sell all he had and give to the poor, then to follow Jesus. St. Antony figured this was a good principle for all serious Christians, so he sold off his inheritance, leaving behind enough for his sister to live on. Then he went visiting Christian ascetics in the town where he lived and learning from them about how to live.
Soon, he heard the verse about not worrying about tomorrow, so then he got rid of the stuff that was supporting his sister and put her in a house of virgins (inchoate nunneries). Then he went off into the desert to live alone. Of course, living alone is hard to achieve for spiritual masters, because somehow word always get round that you’re out living in a cave or a tomb or an abandoned temple somewhere, so you start to get a bit of a following. Over the years, Antony lived in tombs, on a mountain, and on a second mountain, each time moving farther and farther from society and receiving fewer and fewer guests — or at least hoping to receive fewer and fewer guests.
In these days of incipient monasticism, the concept of the hermit as a man who was complete and utterly cut off from the rest of the world was an ideal but never achieved (I’m not sure any hermit ever achieved it). We see that St. Antony had disciples, such as his successor Ammonas, as well as those to whom he gives his discourse in The Life of St. Antony by St. Athanasius.
In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Apopthegmata Patrum), Antony is frequently quoted as providing a pithy saying or two, demonstrating that he was part of the new monastic movement wherein a newer monk would approach a more experienced monk and say, “Abba, give me a word.” The more experienced monk, the Abba, would then give a brief saying or discourse to the less experienced. Antony is also quoted in John Cassian’s Conferences concerning discretion, saying that discretion is the most important tool of the monk.
St. Antony did more than give advice to his disciples, however. As we saw in my last post, he was engaged in the battle with demons. In this battle, according to St. Athanasius, he received literal blows from demons and found himself almost physically defeated, but he continued on nonetheless. The idea is that the desert is the property of the demons, their last retreat and lair. By going there, St. Antony and the other monks are encroaching on their turf; turf wars ensued, with the monks victorious through many battles. Eventually, St. Antony was left alone by the Devil and his minions.
Although called “unlettered” in St. Athanasius’ biography, this does not mean St. Antony was illiterate. It likely means he was not literate in Greek or Latin, that he was not schooled in the classics of the Hellenistic world. Modern philology has determined that seven Coptic letters attributed to St. Antony are most likely by this monk himself. Whether he wrote them with his own hand or dictated them is impossible to say. In these letters, we get a picture of a man who was concerned for the care of souls, deeply orthodox in theology, but not uninfluenced by Valentinian Gnosticism in aspects of his spirituality.
This does not, however, mean that Egyptian monasticism was Gnostic by any means. There are similarities between Celtic Christianity and Buddhism, for example; yet there are also similarities between the Celts and St. Maximus the Confessor. The Coptic monks tended to be orthodox in their theology, as evidenced by their harbouring of St. Athanasius when he was on the run. They ran into theological difficulties with Anthropomorphism (imagining God to have a body like a man) and Origenism (the antithesis, all-too-often accompanied by Origen’s heterodox teachings on Christology and souls). However, St. Antony shows no influence of the heterodox aspects of Origenism or Gnosticism in these letters.
Here is some wisdom of St. Antony:
Advice given to those troubled by demons: Have faith in Jesus; keep your mind pure from wicked thoughts and your body free from all sordidness. In accordance with the divine sayings, do not be seduced by the fullness of the stomach. Detest pride, pray frequently, recite the psalms in the evening and in the morning and at noon, and meditate on the commands of the Scriptures. Remember the deeds done by each of the saints so that the memory of their example will inspire your virtue and restrain it from vices. (Life of Antony 55, trans. White)
Wherever you go, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, have [before you] the testimony of the holy Scriptures. (The Sayings, Latin systematic collection [I think], trans. Ward)
I beseech you, beloved, by the name of Jesus Christ, do not neglect your own salvation, but let each one of you rend his heart and not his garment (Joel 2:13), for fear lest we should be wearing this monastic habit in vain, and preparing for ourselves judgment. (Letter 2, trans. Chitty)
Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. . . . Without temptations no-one can be saved. (The Sayings, Greek alphabetical collection [#5], trans. Ward)
I no longer fear God but love him, for love casts out fear. (The Sayings, Greek alphabetical collection [#32], trans. Ward)
If you are interested in learning more about St. Antony, I recommend the translation of St. Athanasius’ Life of St. Antony in Carolinne White, Early Christian Lives, published by Penguin Classics.
I read Derwas J. Chitty’s translation of the Letters of St. Antony, published by SLG Press.
Sister Benedicta Ward, SLG, has a Penguin Classics translation of the Latin systematic Sayings called The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks as well as of the Greek alphabetical (by author) sayings called The Sayings of the Desert Fathers published by Cistercian.
I am not actually wary of Platonism specifically. Plato is a very skilled writer. He writes with style. In many of the dialogues, if you read with an attentive mind, then Socrates moves beyond asking questions of, say, Euthyphro, to asking questions of me. What do you, mjjhoskin, think of holiness? What is the basis for holiness? What is the basis for this belief of yours? Foundational questions, all of them. Questions that strike at the root of things.
Plato also has some interesting ideas. There’s the ever-popular Cave in The Republic, for example. Timaeus gives us a cosmology not entirely incompatible with reality. Crito gives us the endlessly-speculated myth of Atlantis.
Plato also teaches transmigration of souls. He teaches that this world is not the real world. We have an idea of justice here, an idea of what a table is, an idea of what eros is, but these ideas are not the real things in themselves but shadows of the truth. The true reality, according to Plato, is in the world of forms, where our souls dwell between transmigrations. Platonism also teaches a dualism between body and spirit, between physical and metaphysical. The spirit and the metaphysical are good, the body and the physical are bad. This stems from the theory of forms.
This last paragraph is there to help show why traditional Christianity, “classic” Christianity, ought to be wary of Platonism. Many Christians of the Patristic era liked Platonism too much and created bits of speculative theology that were not in line with Scripture, tradition, or the reasoned account of salvation.
Souls are immortal, according to Platonism — this means that they have a pre-existence in the spiritual realm before becoming incarnate in our bodies. Such is the case in Origenism as well. In fact, from what I’ve seen of Origen and his anathematised beliefs, a great many of them stem from an outworking of Platonist ideas.
One of the most pernicious and persistent Platonic ideas within Christianity is the dualism between body and spirit, between the physical and metaphysical. I think this is in Origen, but it is definitely in the Gnostics and sometimes in the ascetics (but their pagan model was more frequently Stoicism).
The body is not bad.
This is part of true Christian doctrine. In Genesis we are taught that when God created us, He said that His creation was “Very good.” God Himself took on flesh in the Incarnation. He became a man. At the end of time, we shall all be resurrected in a new heaven and a new earth, and we shall have bodies.
The Platonist idea as it manifests itself in Christianty says that our bodies are “fleshly,” and anything that has to do with the body is to be rejected save those things that keep us alive. Modern Christians who have maintained this dichotomy between flesh and spirit sometimes argue things such as, “Dancing is bad because it is all about your body.” Ascetics, on the other hand, argue that you should ignore your body and discipline it. What really matters, however, is mystical experience and seeking God through contemplation. Neglect the body, therefore. Some Gnostics, on the other hand, would argue that since flesh doesn’t matter, do as you please!
Classic Christianity argues that flesh does matter, so treat your body with respect, live morally, and enjoy yourself. Dance. Eat. Drink. Discipline the body, yes, but do so to discipline your whole self, do so to keep it healthy, not to ruin it.
The most pernicious Platonist idea to persist to today is this idea that we are all going to go to heaven when we die, we shall be disembodied and this will be great and this is what we were made for and this world will be destroyed by fire.
Patristic writers (I forget at the moment where I saw this, but it was one of them) lament death because when we die, our bodies and souls are separated, and this is not what we were created for. We were created to have bodies, to walk on earth, to breathe air. This is what the hope of Resurrection is. We will have bodies, but they will be incorruptible. The souls and bodies of the dead will be re-knit together for Judgement Day, and the saved will spend eternity living with those bodies and enjoying the world.
Thus, while there is much in Platonism to commend it, there is also much to be cautious of. The same is true of Aristotelianism, Stoicism, Hinduism, Islam, or Buddhism. Let us not forget that our first commitment is to Christ who was revealed in the Scriptures and has shown Himself through His people throughout history. All pagan ideas, good or ill, are secondary.