Yesterday I made this video, but I wasn’t able to promote it on my blog. More shameless self-promotion for my upcoming Davenant Hall course, “Christianity Before Constantine”. Enjoy!
Now that I’ve written a few posts of reflections on The Apostolic Tradition, I think it a good idea to give a quick review of sorts. I read the second edition of the translation by Alistair Stewart-Sykes for SVS Press’s Popular Patristics Series; for some reason he goes by Alistair Stewart on this volume, even though I’ve only seen the double-barrelled last name on his other work, including the first edition.
One thing you may have noticed in my Apostolic Tradition posts has been a certain ambivalence as to its author. This text, which is not transmitted to us in its original Greek besides fragments, comes down to us anonymously in Latin, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopic (three different dialects), and Arabic. In no manuscript is it attributed to Hippolytus. However, a text of this name is attributed to him elsewhere. Therefore, based on some similarity of ideas as well as fitting the highly reconstructed context of Hippolytus, in the early twentieth century it was attributed to him, and most people now taken is as uncontested ground that Hippolytus of Rome wrote On the Apostolic Tradition.
I think it is possible but not airtight. Stewart accepts the attribution and gives many reasons, drawing on the heavy reconstructions of third-century Roman Christianity conducted by Allen Brent. Brent and Stewart are both clever, so if I am skeptical of their conclusions, this doesn’t mean I am right. I think there are far too many unknowns and uncertainties to say for certain. Indeed, a colleague of mine is even uncertain that the person who lies behind the Hippolytean corpus even lived at Rome!
This should not keep you away from Stewart’s or anyone else’s translation, however. The text is probably of a similar age to Hippolytus, even if maybe it originated in Asia Minor as some believe. It represents the traditional form of many aspects of church life in a particular community in the pre-Constantinian age. For this reason alone we should give it some air time, regardless of authorship.
The Apostolic Tradition will appeal to people interested in the history of liturgy and sacrament and the history of church order. We have here what I think might be our oldest eucharistic and baptismal rites, which is very exciting. A number of other prayers and practices are also here — anointing the sick, blessing bread for those not present at church, personal prayer, communal teaching events, ordaining a bishop, the sign of the cross, and so forth. We see presbyters, bishops, and deacons doing their jobs, as well as catechists and other people with a largely teaching role.
I find it comforting to see the eucharistic liturgy’s similarity to the liturgies we use today, whether Anglicans, Methodists, Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Lutherans. There is a thread of tradition connecting this text and its community to us and our communities. A thread of faith in Jesus Christ and his precious death and glorious resurrection.
Besides the question of the catechumenate, I am also interested in the text’s promotion of ongoing teaching/learning and the rigour implied. Like some of the early Protestants, the members of this worshipping community are encouraged to attend a teaching session before work on weekdays. This sort of rigour is what I imagine myself liking and doing, even though spiritual laziness all-too-often wins.
The text is not long, so I do encourage you to read it.
Here are my other recent posts on The Apostolic Tradition:
- The Seriousness of Becoming a Christian in the Ancient Church
- ‘Progressing in Piety’ – life after joining the church
- ‘Daily devotions’ in ancient Christianity
In The Apostolic Tradition, the author (Hippolytus? of Rome?) writes at the end of the baptismal rite:
And when these things are done, let each hurry to do good works, to please God and to live properly, being devoted to the church, putting into action what he has learnt and progressing in piety. (21.38, trans. Stewart-Sykes)
The phrase that struck me as I read this was ‘progressing in piety’. One of the features of ancient, medieval, Byzantine Christianity is its belief that the ongoing life of faith involves progress. We are not simply ‘saved’ and baptised, but, now that we are made right with God and adopted as His children, we have the opportunity to ‘progress in piety’.
The standard of perfection, for example, is God. And God is eternal and infinite. Therefore, argues St Gregory of Nyssa (d. 394) in the passage excerpted by Richard Foster in Devotional Classics, the human pursuit of perfection is endless and infinite as well. We will never arrive; even in eternity we will have room for limitless growth in glory.
In some Protestant circles (usually the Reformed), a fear of ‘works righteousness’ and the legalism or false sense of personal achievement that attend it have led to a rejection of the idea of progress in holiness — although they acknowledge that something like it occurs, as Spurgeon did when he rejected the phrase ‘progressive sanctification’ as unscriptural, speaking of growth in grace instead.
St John Climacus’ Ladder is all about this progress, after all. Indeed, the ascetic literature, while it can at times tend towards legalism of the harshest kind, is piercingly aware of growth in holiness, portraying it as a ladder or an ascent or steps towards God. Simultaneously, there is an acknowledgement of the necessity of grace for this growth in holiness. (St Theophan the Recluse, the nineteenth-century Russian always comes to my mind when I think about this.)
We are commanded to progress in piety, but we need the grace of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit will empower our spiritual disciplines so that we can strive for the heights of John Wesley’s Christian perfection. (A concept, when rightly understood, I am not opposed to — but I do wonder if anyone ever received so much grace.) This is synergeia, synergy, and it is not a rejection of grace but a way of viewing how it operates.
I am the sort of person who is attracted to high ideals, although I am far too spiritually lazy to live up to most of them. Hence my ongoing appetite for monks and friars, for ascetics and mystics, for academic standards of publishing. I am always struck by the seriousness of becoming a Christian in the ancient church, as in the Apostolic Tradition attributed by some moderns to St Hippolytus.
In ancient Christianity, a person who is interested in becoming a Christian but not yet baptised is a ‘catechumen’. In the Apostolic Tradition, catechumens are expected to spend three years in preparation for their baptism (it is not the only text to do so; some ancient works on church discipline call for only three months) — during this time, they attend lectures about the Christian faith and are present at the liturgy on Sundays, but do not receive the consecrated elements.
At the end of this time, they are exorcised on multiple occasions, fast, and then spent the whole night before they are baptised ‘in vigil, hearing readings and receiving instruction’ (ch. 20.10, trans. Stewart-Sykes). Then, at cock-crow, the baptismal rite begins.
I am stirred by this idea of the ancient catechumenate. Consider the poor results of conversionism — people come to a church event or rally or ‘crusade’, or they sit with a friend or a random stranger who ‘shares the Gospel’, and then the pray ‘the sinner’s prayer’. After that, they are expected to tithe and come regularly to potlucks. (I’m not that cynical, really…)
But shouldn’t people weigh the cost of discipleship? Shouldn’t they be placed upon the pathway of spiritual growth?
I figure our churches should have as two main areas of focus:
- Worship God (‘glorify God and enjoy Him forever)
- Make disciples (both through conversion and spiritual growth)
The ancient catechumenate was part of focus #2, and everyone involved in it was also involved in focus #1.
When I mention things like this, suddenly people get edgy. If we make full involvement in the sacramental fellowship something that requires commitment, something arduous, something big and worthy, won’t people be driven away? I mean, if they’re into Jesus, won’t they just slip away to the nearest megachurch instead?
Maybe. But is easy-ism worth it? Butts in pews are not necessarily disciples.
How can we rearrange what we do as witnessing and worshipping communities both to evangelise and to help new disciples grow into the fullness of the stature of Christ? Some sort of adapted catechumenate might be part of the answer.
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.
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.
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.
I thought about making the title refer to ‘typical Anglican’ liturgy or the ‘appeal’ rather than the ‘power’, but power runs deeper than appeal, and common prayer runs wider than Anglicans.
Last week I blogged about my experience at St Michael’s Anglican Church, Paris, France and how much I liked it. There were two facets to the service that really appealed to me — orthodoxy and something at the time that was less tangible but which Bosco Peters pointed out as common prayer. I believe that the latter bolsters the former, which is part of its power.
‘Normal’ eucharistic liturgy in a western tradition, whether Anglican, Roman Catholic, or Lutheran, will follow a particular structure which will have many elements in common with the Divine Liturgies of the Orthodox Churches.
This right here is part of the power of a ‘normal’ liturgy. It is so normal that it is … common. Common prayer, following a structure with certain elements across Christian traditions and throughout space and time. If you go to a liturgical church, chances are that each Sunday you are engaging in ritual actions in your worship of God that are connected with fellow believers in almost every country of the world in a vast array of languages — and they aren’t even all of your denomination!
That’s a comforting thought. The liturgy brings us together. Assuredly, if you set foot in some churches, their liturgy may seem strange, and the ‘common’ elements harder to spot, but they are there. And possibly more of them than you think. Through a ‘normal’ liturgy, the unity of Christ’s Body is demonstrated in a way that transcends the barriers raised in the 500s, 1000s, 1500s, 1700s, last year.
Among these common elements, I want to pick out just a few: God’s word written, confession, the ‘sursum corda‘, and hymns.
God’s word written is an inescapable element of common prayer. I grew up at a church with an Old Testament lesson, a New Testament lesson, a Psalm, and a Gospel reading. This is the typical breadth of an Anglican service when it comes to the Bible. The Bible is God’s revelation to humanity, so it is sensible that a significant portion of our worship be spent in giving attention to it.
Furthermore, for most of Christian history the bulk of the congregation would have been illiterate, so the public reading of the Bible was the primary way ‘ordinary’ Christians would meet the written revelation of God. The Bible is central to the liturgy.
Part of this is found in the use of a lectionary to provide the readings. Most mainline churches and Roman Catholics use the Revised Common Lectionary, providing a three-year cycle of readings to give us passages of Scripture tied to the Church year and keeping our attention on Jesus and the Gospel all year through. Some Anglican dioceses still use older Prayer Book lectionaries, and the Orthodox communions use their own lectionaries keyed to their church year.
Such lectionaries have several benefits: they force preachers to preach on things they would not normally choose; they keep a year-round, global focus on the full richness of Jesus’ life and ministry; they, like common prayer at large, bind churches together across time and space. Someone else somwhere else somewhen else has read this selection of Scriptures at Eucharist as well.
Besides these appointed readings, if you start paying attention to your liturgy, and not just the Communion, you’ll find that Scripture is everywhere. And biblical theology is interwoven into those places where the words themselves are lacking. The Bible is central to liturgical worship, not peripheral.
Confession is an important aspect of all Christian lives. Some of the 16th- and 17th-century so-called ‘Puritans’ in England (not all of whom were Calvinist) felt that there was no need for a prayer of confession before Communion — after all, the true Christian will repent the moment he/she is aware of sin, and therefore turn up on Sunday with a clear conscience. This argument presupposes that a. only ‘true’ Christians make it to the Eucharist (and the Church cannot actually police that, as St Augustine observed), and b. Christians are mindful of their sins throughout the week. It also imagines that indidivual prayer and confession are all that matters.
However, throughout the Bible we have examples of the nation of Israel being called to corporate confession. Furthermore, prayers of confession in the liturgy tend to cover a lot of bases — ‘what we have done and what we have left undone.’ Part of common prayer is to teach us corporately how to pray individually. Confessing our sins to God together is a way of reminding us that we are all sinners who have fallen short of the glory God and that we are unworthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under His table — and so, as we prepare for the feast, we lay bare our souls to God.
And if you think that your church has a strong emphasis on confession or that the Prayer Book goes too far, read any of the eastern liturgies, or go to the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts some Wednesday in Lent and touch your forehead to the ground and ask yourself what true repentance looks like.
The ‘sursum corda’. You know this bit:
The Lord be with you.
And with thy spirit.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up unto the Lord.
Let us give thanks unto the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.
It is indeed meet, right, and our bounden duty …
That was straight from memory, but I’m pretty sure that’s correct. I did hear it almost every Sunday for over 25 years of my life, after all. Here is where ‘normal’ liturgy begins to time travel. The power of this prayer lies not in the fact that Christians from Anglicans and Methodists to Greek Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox pray it but that it transcends time as it transcends space.
This piece of the liturgy — ubiquitous until the Reformation — first appears in Hippolytus in the early 200s. From what I’ve read, everything in The Apostolic Tradition is, actually, traditional. Thus, it dates back to the second century at the latest. When we pray a ‘normal’ liturgy, we are praying with the earliest Christians who ever prayed.
And the eucharistic structure remains largely unchanged as well, while the preceding part of the service, ‘the liturgy of the Word’, has visible roots in synagogue worship. A ‘normal’ liturgy is normal for the second century as well as the twenty-first, if not the first.
Hymns. Here we come to the least common element of all, you might think. What has an Anglo-Catholic choir singing music by Tallis to do with their low Anglican neighbours singing Matt Redman or the Byzantine chant from the Oktoechos down the street? What has John Wesley with the Methodists to do with John Michael Talbot with the Catholics? An organ vs a cappella? A rock band vs a four-part (40-part) choir?
Whatever our take on the musical aspect of hymnography, the hymns do, in fact, unite us. The hymns are a more changeable aspect of the liturgy. A typical Anglican church will have a minimum of three or four, some add more during Communion or at different points within the service. Yet each week, common prayer gives western churches (I admit to ignorance re the East here) the chance to be flexible to the worship and needs of their own situation — we choose our own hymns.
Yet even in this difference, we are united in the praise of Almighty God, whose worship transcends all liturgy, all hymns, all confessions, Scripture itself. This is what matters when we meet together to pray to and praise the Most Holy Trinity, and I believe that there is deep power in a ‘normal’ liturgy, in common prayer united across space and time, through the ages and around the world, to do just that.
Last Saturday morning, with the able help of a volunteer from the Greek Evangelical Church, I gave a seminar on ‘Evangelicals and Tradition.’ What I hope from this seminar is for evangelicals to be less … wary? afraid? of tradition but to develop the necessary skills of discernment to judge which parts of it are good, which are bad, and which are … adiaphora. Marginal. Not worth fussing over every time you meet an Orthodox or Roman Catholic Christian.
Following D H Williams’ lead in the very good book Evangelicals and Tradition: The Formative Influences of the Early Church, I started us off with a discussion of the history and usefulness of the Canon of the Faith, beginning briefly with the Apostles’ Creed as a summary of the Gospel that we, as evangelicals, claim to be attached to so fiercely. Then I gave a wee history of such things, starting with Justin’s proclamation at his martyrdom in the mid-100s and Irenaios’ ‘Rule of Faith’ of the late 100s, then moving on to baptismal creeds such as the Dêr Balyzeh Papyrus of the early 100s and Hippolytos of the early 200s:
When each of them to be baptized has gone down into the water, the one baptizing shall lay hands on each of them, asking, “Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?” 13And the one being baptized shall answer, “I believe.” 14He shall then baptize each of them once, laying his hand upon each of their heads. 15Then he shall ask, “Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and died, and rose on the third day living from the dead, and ascended into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of the Father, the one coming to judge the living and the dead?” 16When each has answered, “I believe,” he shall baptize a second time.
17Then he shall ask, “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit and the Holy Church and the resurrection of the flesh?” 18Then each being baptized shall answer, “I believe.” And thus let him baptize the third time. 19Afterward, when they have come up out of the water, they shall be anointed by the elder with the Oil of Thanksgiving, saying, “I anoint you with holy oil in the name of Jesus Christ.” 20Then, drying themselves, they shall dress and afterwards gather in the church. (From an online translation of Hippolytos.)
This led to a fruitful, I believe, discussion of how similar Hippolytos’ baptismal ceremony is the Orthodox ceremony — triple immersion and anointing with oil! I said that the Orthodox got this from the ancient days; it is a tradition that they have maintained since the earliest days of the Church. Perhaps one evangelical-Orthodox wall was weakened by that realisation.
From there, I brought forth the Nicene and Constantinopolitan Creeds of 325 and 381. The complaint could be made that the statements of 325 and 381 use non-biblical language, and that the Bible already teaches all of these things. However, as with Irenaios vs Gnostics who used Christian Scripture, so also in the battle against those who denied the divinity of Jesus. The argument was not over what was Scripture but how we understand it; so the Church came up with an interpretative lens, almost as old as the apostles themselves, drawn from Scriptural ideas and truths but using the language of Greek philosophy, to state unequivocally what the Scriptural and Traditional teachings about Jesus are.
And at the complaint that the Eastern Orthodox believe these creeds more than the Bible, I must protest. These creeds are but summaries of Gospel truth, created to meet a need that the Church had at that time. It is impossible to believe them more than the Bible. Ioannis Kassianos, a Romanian monk who lived for a time in Bethlehem then Egypt before settling in Marseilles, wrote this in the early 400s:
There is nothing wanting then in the Creed; because it was formed from the Scriptures of God by the apostles of God, it has in it all the authority it can possibly have, whether of men or of God. (De Inc. 6.4, NPNF trans.)
Another complaint I know of is that encapsulating the Gospel in such statements takes the life from it. This is a possibility—but it is a possibility even with the writings of Scripture, depending on how we use them. I prefer to view these statements of the centre of Christian tradition as fences or the boundaries of a playing field. We can say things they do not say, but if we say things that are counter to them, we find ourselves standing outside of the biblical, apostolic tradition that the Church has handed down to us as encapsulated in these creeds.
The purpose of all of this was to show how unchanging the central core of Christian tradition was throughout the ancient church, and how it is important for us today. Furthermore, when we go back to Irenaios, we see the importance of a central, unwritten Apostolic tradition that exists in tandem with the Scriptures, because the Gnostics, using the same Scriptures, claimed that their interpretation was the right one, and their unwritten tradition the true one. So what are we to do? Recourse to the Scriptures alone cannot save us when they, too, are using the Scriptures.
When most evangelicals think of tradition, we think of these ‘unwritten’ aspects of Christianity, we think of accretions adding up over time, we think of bishops, priests, and deacons, we think of saints and theologians, we think of stained glass, of Gothic architecture and Byzantine domes. In a very large, encompassing vision of tradition, these things are all part of tradition.
But what I hope to have shown here today is a core of tradition that remains very little modified over the centuries—that creed of 381 just discussed and on your handout is believed and affirmed by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopian, and Syrian Orthodox, the Church of the East from Iran to China and India, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, the Dutch Christian Reformed, and the Nicosia International Church. Here is an aspect of tradition that we affirm today which was affirmed long ago by the Christians of the later Roman Empire.
If we want to get involved with ancient Christians, we must take the long view of Christian history. And in taking this long view, the question that arises is whether any given development is faithful to Gospel belief and Gospel living—to the Tradition as discussed above and enshrined in the Bible, as we’ll see in my next talk.
The Christians before the year 500 determined that Gnosticism, Monarchianism, Arianism in its various forms, Pneumatomachianism, Pelagianism, Nestorianism, Manichaeism, Eutychianism, certain strains of Origen’s thought, and many others were deviations from the truth handed down from the apostles, the paradosis, tradition in its truest sense. And we today owe much to this ancient tradition.
One third-century image of the Cross worth considering from the literature surrounding the Cult of the Cross (previous posts here) is that of the Cross as a tree that brings life to the world. Pseudo-Hippolytus proclaims in Paschal Homily 51:
This tree is my everlasting salvation. It is my food, a shared banquet. Its roots and the spread of its branches are my own roots and extension. In its shade, as in a breeze, I luxuriate and am cared for. Its shade I take for my resting place; in my flight from oppressive heat it is a source of refreshing dew for me. Its blossoms are my own, my utter delight its fruits, saved from the beginning for my harvest. Food for my hunger and well-spring for my thirst, it is also a covering for my nakedness, with the spirit of life as its leaves. Far from me henceforth the fig leaves! Fearful of God, I find it a place of safety; when unsteady, a source of stability. In the face of a struggle, I look to it as a prize; in victory, my trophy. It is the narrow path, the restricted road. It is Jacob’s ladder, the passage of angels, at whose summit the Lord is affixed. This tree, the plant of immortality, rears from earth to reach as high as heaven, fixing the Lord between heaven and earth. It is the foundation and stabilizer of the universe, undergirding the world that we inhabit. It is the binding force of the world and holds together all the varieties that human life encompasses. It is riveted into a unity by the invisible bonds of the Spirit, so that its connection with God can never be severed. Brushing heaven with its uppermost branches, it remains fixed in the earth and, between the two points, its huge hands completely enfold the stirring of the air. As a single whole it penetrates all things and all places. (Trans. Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, p. 81)
Those looking for a Great Apostasy or papist idolatry need look no further. Those, however, with a discerning mind, will see here the cross being a symbol for Christ, for his atoning work achieved for us on the tree. What our foe intended for our ruin, an instrument of shameful death and destruction, has become for us the very source of life. Because of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross 2000(ish) years ago, we can taste true life now and live forevermore after the Resurrection.
This is the message of the Cross, the point of the image of the Cross as the tree of life.
For those looking for other beautiful images of the Cross, check out the Dream of the Rood.
Do you ever wonder about St. Matthias and what he did before and after his one and only appearance in the Bible, when they cast lots and choose him as the replacement for Judas Iscariot in Acts 2? So does most of the world, as it turns out.
Regarding his life before his apostolate, we can assume he was among the 70 whom Jesus sent out because in Acts Peter says that Judas’ replacement must have been with them from the beginning. His Wikipedia entry cites Clement of Alexandria as saying that St. Matthias was possibly the same person as Zacchaeus (Lk. 19:1-10).
Some agreement surrounds his preaching enterprise beginning in Judaea (Wikipedia and abbamoses agree). This makes sense, since all of the apostolic activity began in Judaea before spreading throughout the known world. According to one tradition, poor St. Matthias was stoned to death in Jerusalem. Although not entirely unbelievable, there comes to be a certain sameness to the stories told about lesser-known apostolic characters, so this may be pious fiction. According to Hippolytus he died of old age in Jerusalem.
Another and more exciting tradition places him in Aethiopia following his stint in Judaea. Aethiopia most likely did not mean Ethiopia, though. Wikipedia says that Nicephorus thinks “Aethiopia” is actually “Colchis” on the Black Sea, now in Georgia (the famous destination of Jason and the Argonauts). The basis for this, I reckon, is the presence of his alleged remains there; although, if those are St. Matthias’ remains, then whose remains did St. Helena allegedly pick up? Regardless, I have no idea why someone would think that Aethiopia would be Colchis of all places. Aethiopia, speaking Hellenically, is the place of the burnt-faced people and is always south, usually south of Egypt and Libya, thus Nubia/Sudan/Ethiopia, but never north of Greece at Colchis.
Anyway, so St. Matthias brought the Gospel to Aethiopia, wherever that is. Not only is he in Aethiopia, he’s in the city of man-eaters in Aethiopia, in fact. The tradition that asserts the cannibals includes the apocryphal Acts of Andrew and Matthias, although the country is merely identified as “the country of the man-eaters” — perhaps Colchis? Are Georgians cannibalistic? (I don’t think so.) Said Acts are interesting because they are clearly related to the Old English poem Andreas (in OE here, in Mod English in the Everyman book Anglo-Saxon Poetry) in which St. Andrew the Apostle rescues St. Matthew from a city of cannibals in Mermedonia, not Aethiopia. In fact, most of the manuscripts say the Acts are of Andrew & Matthew, but the earliest says of Matthias (see CCEL).
St. Matthias (or St. Matthew or no one at all, given that anthropophagy is rare and the story is of dubious origin) was imprisoned by the man-eaters and lined up to be their next feast. He prayed for deliverance, and Jesus brought him St. Andrew on a ship (so maybe Colchis?). Andrew gets there, sneaks into the city, and finds Matthias sitting in his prison cell singing (ala Sts. Paul & Silas). Then the two apostles performed some miracles, culminating in Matthias being transported in a cloud along with Andrew’s disciples and showing up on a hill where Peter is preaching. Andrew stayed behind to perform a few more miracles, debate with the Devil, and convert the man-eaters.
The Acts do not tell us about what St. Matthias does next. At some point he died, possibly in Jerusalem, possibly in Georgia, possibly in Africa south of Egypt and Libya. It’s all rather vague, revealing the paucity of information we have about first-century Christianity outside of the New Testament.
Last night was the second meeting of the small group. We discussed the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds. Some good thoughts were shared and expressed, which I hope to give you along the way this week. But to keep things short, I’ll just start with my notes in this post and move on to the fruit of the night later.
As I worked through my notes, we discussed various questions pertaining to church history and Arianism and why Arius was a heretic — that sort of thing. Things that came up along the way were baptism, the Donation of Constantine, the Resurrection of the Dead, Mozilla being a charity, etc. Being here in person is clearly the preferable way to encounter this stuff.
The Nicene Creed
The origins of the Nicene Creed lie in the early fourth century. An Alexandrian priest named Arius said, responding to his bishop Alexander who saw Jesus as having being begotten of the Father before all ages, “En pote hote ouk en.” “There was when he was not.” This became the slogan of his party who were termed “Arians.” (Since he was only a priest, some of the Arian bishops didn’t like this, but when you’re a heretic, you don’t choose your label.)
Arianism is not traditional Christology, whatever certain Archbishops of Canterbury might tell you.* In Arianism, Jesus, the Word, was considered to be other than the Father and lesser than the Father for a few reasons, including the verse in Proverbs in which Divine Wisdom says that it was created by Father first. Many ancient theologians interpreted “Divine Wisdom” to be the same as “the Word” of John 1. Therefore, by Arius’ reckoning, Jesus was a created being, as in Colossians he is called, “the firstborn of all creation.” Besides this, Arianism tried to follow a certain amount of Aristotelian logic. Jesus is called the Son or the Word, whereas the Father is called the Father or God. A difference in name, as with apple and tree, necessitates a difference in essence or nature. Therefore, Jesus’ essence is not the same as that of God the Father. They do not share a “substance” but are two entirely different beings. Jesus the Word, because he is always following the Father’s will, is allowed to be called “divine” and “God”.
One of the major problems with Arianism is the fact that every Sunday, they, along with everyone else, would worship Jesus. If Jesus is not God, you cannot worship him. As well, Arianism runs counter to the plain sense of John 1. If “the Word was God,” the Word wasn’t other than God. The Word wasn’t a lesser being. The Word was God. This is what it means. Nicene orthodoxy takes that verse at its face value and uses it to interpret Proverbs, not the other way around. The Proverbs verses aren’t necessarily about Jesus in a prophetic sense anyway. Wisdom may simply be a type of the Word. Typology is important to keep in mind.
To have Arius running around saying all that stuff would not do. A council was called in Antioch which condemned him. This wasn’t quite enough — Arius kept at it, so a general council, a council of the whole inhabited world was called. The word for this is “ecumenical”; thus you will hear church historians and the Eastern Orthodox talking about the “ecumenical councils,” of which there were eight. This council met in Nicaea, which is in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) near the Bosporus, opening on June 19, 325. The Emperor Constantine convened the council, believing that it was important for the security and fabric of his newly united Empire that the Church also be united. Bishops came from all over the East, from Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Arabia, Persia, Libya, Greece, Armenia, Cyprus. From the West, Orosius of Cordoba, Spain, came as did delegates from Silvester, Bishop of Rome.
The bishops met for several days, arguing about the doctrines professed by Arius and believing that a document should be produced to which bishops would have to subscribe if they were to avoid excommunication and anathematisation. They also discussed various other matters, from how to consecrate bishops to ordaining castrated men. The creed to which all had to subscribe was based upon the baptismal formula of Caesaria with a few alterations and was as we have it, with the following differences. It ends with, “And the Holy Spirit,” then launches into:
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 Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes.
The specifically anti-Arian statements are bundled together:
Begotten of the Father before all worlds; God, of God; Light, of Light; Very God, of very God; Begotten, not made; Being of one substance with the Father;
Since the Arians called Jesus “God” without believing him to actually be God, the most important statements are the first and last. Jesus was “begotten of the Father before all worlds,” as opposed to the Arian assertion that he was created within time. And he is “of one substance with the Father,” as opposed to the Arian idea that Jesus is a different, lesser being than God the Father. The Greek word is, “homoousios”, the Latin, “consubstantialis.” (I object to the modern translation that says, “of one being with the Father,” because it obscures the theological debates of the creed’s origin and does not make it very clear in what way Jesus and the Father are one, whereas “of one substance” is a proper translation of the theological idea that Jesus and the Father share an essence; furthermore, “of one being” allows for the ancient heresy of Sabellianism.)
The bits about the Holy Spirit come from at the Council of Constantinople in AD 381 to combat people who say that the Holy Spirit isn’t God but is something like an angel or who say that he isn’t his own person. From that point forward, the creed was only ever affirmed at Church Councils and no ecumenical council has meddled with it.
At a synod in Spain, to battle a heresy which I believe was called Priscillianism, they added one little Latin word to the creed, filioque. Thus, the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. Charlemagne liked the Spanish usage and sought to unify the liturgy of the whole Frankish Empire, so they used filioque although the Pope was not in favour. He believed in dual procession of the Holy Spirit; but you don’t mess with the creed without asking. Eventually, later popes got on board with this idea, and it is in the Nicene Creed as said in the Church of Rome to this day.
The Eastern Orthodox don’t like this (see T. Ware, The Orthodox Church, 1st ed., pp. 218-223). In part, they don’t like it because no ecumenical council agreed to it. In part, they don’t like it because most of them don’t believe in a dual procession of the Holy Spirit. In part, they don’t like it because it was done in the West (OK, that last one may be harsh, but I’m always amazed at the strongly eastern flavour of so-called “ecumenical” councils, esp. the last one which dealt with a specifically eastern issue, and at which no western bishops were present).
The Apostles’ Creed
The Apostles’ Creed is the baptismal formula of the Church of Rome. The legend, however, is that the 12 Apostles were all sitting around one day and thinking, “What do we believe? What should the new disciples agree to at baptism?” Each of them contributed a different bit and, hey, presto! The Apostles’ Creed! This creed is the basis for the Anglican baptismal rites; modern ones work it into a series of questions, whereas the BCP (1962)** has the parents or one to be baptised recite it in full. You can see its basis in the baptismal rite found in the 3rd-century Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus as well.
When we see these two creeds side by side, we see why I prefer the Nicene. It is fuller, more complete. Part of this fullness comes from its origins in the Arian controversy, but not all, such as the statement that God is the creator of the visible and the invisible.
*See Robert W. Jenson, “With No Qualifications: The Christological Maximalism of the Christian East,” in Ancient & Postmodern Christianity. He doesn’t deal with Williams but he does deal with Arius. The whole essay is available on google books.
**1662 the priest recites it and they agree to believe it.