Church after Constantine, 2a: The Late Antique Targets

I realised that even a brief mention of all the different persons/groups targeted by the Church (whether imperial or mediaeval) from the late fourth century to the end of the Middle Ages would be too large a task, and even truncated, too long for a single post. So here I give you the groups targeted by the official Church hierarchies of Late Antiquity.

Hopefully I will show that, while the use of force in any of these cases is not to be approved, these groups are not the True Church gone Underground after Constantine. Indeed, many of these groups sought the approval of the Late Antique Church structures.

  • Priscillianists. Priscillian of Avila has the dubious distinction of being the first person executed on grounds of heresy in 385 under the usurper Magnus Maximus in Gaul. As with many ‘heretics’, the theory currently making its rounds is that Priscillian wasn’t actually a heretic but was upsetting the current order in Gallaecia (northwest Spain), so his opponents wanted him removed, and that all later ‘Priscillianists’ are guilty of the same thing. Nonetheless, if Priscillian were a Priscillianist, he would have been worthy of the Church’s censure, if not execution, since he is alleged to have taught, following the succinct description of the Catholic Encyclopedia:

The foundation of the doctrines of the Priscillianists was Gnostic-Manichaean Dualism, a belief in the existence of two kingdoms, one of Light and one of Darkness. Angels and the souls of men were said to be severed from the substance of the Deity. Human souls were intended to conquer the Kingdom of Darkness, but fell and were imprisoned in material bodies. Thus both kingdoms were represented in man, and hence a conflict symbolized on the side of Light by the Twelve Patriarchs, heavenly spirits, who corresponded to certain of man’s powers, and, on the side of Darkness, by the Signs of the Zodiac, the symbols of matter and the lower kingdom. The salvation of man consists in liberation from the domination of matter. The twelve heavenly spirits having failed to accomplish their release, the Saviour came in a heavenly body which appeared to be like that of other men, and through His doctrine and His apparent death released the souls of the men from the influence of the material.

  • Pelagians (on whom I’ve previously blogged here). Once again, we have here a group whose leader may not have been a heretic at all. Nevertheless, if you read Julian of Eclanum, some of his followers seem to have been. Unlike Priscillian, Pelagius was not killed, nor were his followers. They were, rather, stripped of holy orders and excommunicated. This is not violence or force but, rather, church discipline. What Pelagius and his followers were condemned for (regardless of what any individual actually believed) is succinctly put by Pope Leo I (r. 440-461; my trans.):

And since they pretend to reject and put aside all their definitions to help them sneak in, they seize on this with all their art of deceit, unless they are understood, that the grace of God is felt to be given according to the merits of the recipients. Which, of course—unless it were given gratis—is not grace, but payment and recompense for merits: as the blessed Apostle says, ‘You were saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves but it is the gift of God, not from works, lest perhaps some be exalted. For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God has prepared that we may walk in them.’ (Eph. 2:8-10) And so every bestowal of good works is a divine preparation: because no one is justified by virtue before grace, which is the beginning of justice, the fount of good things, and the origin of merits for one and all. But by these men, therefore, it is said to be anticipated by that innate industry so that which was clear by its own zeal before grace, seems not harmed by any wound of original sin; and it is false which Truth said, ‘For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save that which had perished.’ (Luke 19:10) (Leo, Ep. 1.3)

  • Manichees. Manichaeism is the third big heretical group attacked in the western Church. Interestingly enough, it should not class as a heresy at all, but, rather, a distinct religion some of whose members also self-identified as Christians. This is the religion of which Augustine of Hippo was a member before converting to Platonism and, ultimately, catholic Christianity. It traces its roots to a prophet named Mani (Manichaeus in Latin) who believed himself Christianity’s promised Paraclete, and combined various elements of Persian, Graeco-Roman, and Christian religion into his religious philosophy. It was a sect with various degrees and levels of knowledge, and only those in the highest orders were bound to be saved. Like Priscillianism, it is a dualistic philosophy in which the good god created spirit but his rival created matter, and the two are interlocked in a great contest. They were generally only expelled from church communion for most of their history, although Pope Leo I (r. 440-461) tried to drive them out of the city of Rome itself.
  • Nestorians. Nestorius was Archbishop of Constantinople in the late 420s. He may not have been Nestorian, but he said things that sounded Nestorian. The teaching named after him was the idea that two distinct persons inhabit the single body of Jesus Christ. This causes a lot of problems, because the humanity is, then, not fully taken up by the divinity. In the nitty-gritty of daily theological life, I personally wonder how many so-called ‘Nestorians’ were really that Nestorian. They were expelled from the Roman Empire under Zeno I (r. 474-491) and founded the Church of the East, which stretches from the ancient Persian Empire into India, and was even active for a while in China, where a former monastery of theirs displays texts written in both Syriac and Chinese script. The successors to the ‘Nestorians’ of the fifth century tend to be called ‘Dyophysites’ these days, although I think that confuses them with Chalcedonian catholic Christianity (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, most Protestant groups).
  • Mono/miaphysites. This group believes in one nature of God the Word incarnate. The slogan is taken from Cyril of Alexandria in reaction to the Council of Chalcedon that proclaimed Christ as existing in two natures. For a long time they fought with the Chalcedonians over which theology would win out as the theology of the Church within the Empire (although only in the East; the West was always Chalcedonian, one of the deciding factors). The final, irreparable rupture, despite many later attempts at reconciliation, occured in the long reign of Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565) during which they established a separate hierarchy parallel to that of the imperial, catholic church. Both sides in this debate engaged one another with both official and mob violence, although very rarely were persons actually killed; usually they suffered confiscation of property or expulsion from monasteries. They are so close to catholic teaching that I wonder if they can be properly called heretics; their successors form the Coptic Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, and the Armenian Apostolic Church.
  • Origenists. Two Origenist Controversies erupted in the ancient church, both of them focussing upon monastic theology and practice. The first was in the late 300s/early 400s, the second in the mid-500s. Amongst the victims of the various politicking persons of the First Origenist Controversy was John Chrysostom. The teachings condemned in the Second Origenist Controversy can be found here. They focus upon the pre-existence of souls and a subordinationist Christology that makes Jesus less than fully, truly God. This system, drawn largely from the teachings of Evagrius, not Origen, believes that all souls used to be united together in the Monad, but Movement made them fall to different degrees, and someday they shall all return. The soul of Jesus is the only soul that did not fall. You can see why, even if few monks really believed this in full, an accusation of being Origenist was a potent thing. Most so-called ‘Origenists’ were either expelled from their monasteries or removed from the position of Abbot.
  • The Iconoclastic Controversy, East and West (700s-800s). Most people who believe that the True Church went Underground and all we need to do to find it is follow the trail of blood would point to the iconoclasts as being the poor, persecuted True Believers. However, for much of the controversy as it raged for more than a century, the iconodules were the ones under censure by the official church or the secular authorities of the Christian government. No official violence was used here, mostly the usual strings of anathemas, confiscations of ecclesiastical property, and removal from church offices. In the end, the position adopted was in favour of images. One thing to note is that our earliest Christian church, from before 250 at Dura Europas in Syria, is covered in images as are the Roman catacombs (fourth century?) and a fourth-century sanctuary in Britain. So images in Christian places of worship pre-date the eighth- and ninth-century controversy by a long shot, long  before people were getting kicked out of their churches for it. Oh, and in the West, the iconodule popes painted frescoes and put up mosaics in defiance of iconoclastic kings.

I have no doubt there are ancient, post-Constantinian heresies I’ve neglected. But the main point, I hope, is clear. The Church, even when she got the power of the government to help her out, was not persecuting people because they believed in some long-lost apostolic truth but because they believed things that modern evangelicals would also have felt to be worthy of censure.

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Saint of the Week: Leo the Great

In the year AD 440, the Archdeacon of Rome was away in Gaul on a diplomatic mission.  While he was there, the Bishop of Rome, St. Sixtus III, passed away.  Despite the fact that he wasn’t there, the powers that be in Rome elected the absent Archdeacon as Bishop.  They waited patiently for his return.  He thanked them for this patience in his accession speech.  This archdeacon was Leo I, the Great.

I have chosen Pope St. Leo the Great (c. 400-461; see my review of Leo the Great as well) because he is a big part of my life right now, and hopefully this state of affairs will continue for the next three and a half years.  I have also chosen him because tomorrow is Christmas, the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, the day we remember the coming of God as a man approximately 2000 years ago, and St. Leo was a theologian of the Incarnation.

We have scant knowledge about Leo before his election to the papacy.  We know that he was Archdeacon in the 430’s when he commissioned my friend John Cassian (this post gives a list of my major posts about Cassian) to write On the Incarnation of the Lord Against Nestorius (my thochts on that here).  He may also have been involved in the Roman See’s actions concerning the Pelagian Controversy.  The fact that he commissioned Cassian’s anti-Nestorian work lets us know that in the decade before his rise to the throne of Peter, St. Leo was involved in the Christological controversies sparked in the East by Nestorius in 428.

Thus, he was already a student of theology by the time he became pope.  As Bishop of Rome, he changed the previously un-preachy* nature of the Roman episcopacy (taking his cue from our friend St. Ambrose) and began a cycle of preaching that followed the church year, with at least fifteen occasions throughout the year, including the Advent fast, the Nativity, Lent, the Pasch, ultimately Pentecost, the Feast of St. Laurence, the anniversary of his elevation to the Roman See, and other liturgical moments (see the CCEL for translations of a number of these).

These sermons are explications of the feasts/fasts and the theological underpinnings of the remembrance at hand.  In his Advent and Christmas sermons, St. Leo explicates in wondrous beauty the necessity and nature of the Incarnation — a birth “wondrously singular and singularly wondrous” — for our salvation from sin, death, and the devil.  The peroration, or conclusion, of each sermon exhorts the people of Rome to virtuous action; he wants to help them see that being a Christian is the same as being a good Roman.  He also takes aim at heretics in his sermons, at times Manichees, who had a presence in Rome, at times Eutyches, at times Nestorius.

If you read these sermons, and I encourage you to, you see that St. Leo was a theologian with a pastor’s heart.  No, actually, he was a pastor with a theologian’s insight.  He demonstrated for the edification of his congregation the theology and action necessary for a healthy Christian life.  He also emphasized strongly, contra the now-deceased Bishop of Hippo Regius, the will of God to save all mankind.  The question of how it therefore comes about that God happens not to save all mankind is not fully treated in Leo’s corpus.

In the letters, we see Leo as a pastor’s pastor, as a pontifical statesman, and as a controversial theologian.  He answered letters, for example, from bishops who had congregants from North Africa who weren’t sure if they had been baptised Catholic or schismatic.  His answer was that it was being baptised into the threefold Name of the Most Holy Trinity that counted, not the baptiser.  He answered questions about Priscillianism for a bishop in Spain.

He also tried to impose his will, to a degree, on the bishops of Illyricum.  Most strikingly, he tried to impose his will on the Bishops of Gaul.  He largely succeeded, diminishing to a degree the see of Arles under Hilary, demonstrating the power of the Bishop of Rome in disputes.  He saw the Pope as the universal court of appeal for the Church, a man who could intervene in the affairs of other dioceses beyond his own metropolitan zone in order to maintain and restore order.

In the year 444, St. Cyril of Alexandria passed away.  St. Cyril had been the theologian of the Incarnation par excellence throughout Leo’s career.  He had spearheaded the offensive against Nestorius and had largely engineered the outcome of the First Council of Ephesus.  With St. Cyril dead, the mantle of Christologian passed to St. Leo.  But was he up to the task?

St. Leo’s time came in 449 when he received a letter from an Archimandrite (a senior abbot) named Eutyches, whom a local synod in Constantinople had deemed a heretic.  Eutyches was appealing to Leo.  Soon Leo also received a letter from Flavian, Bishop of Constantinople, explaining to Leo the circumstances of Eutyches’ trial.  Leo responded to Flavian on June 13 with his famous Tome, letter 28.

This document is the piece of writing for which St. Leo is most famous for.  In this letter, Leo has in his sights both Nestorius as Leo understood him and Eutyches.  The former, as far as Leo was concerned, denied Christ’s divinity; the latter, Christ’s humanity.  The Tome is a text of balance and duality.  Leo sets forth for his reader the balance and duality within Christ of the human and divine natures.  He strikes a balance that seeks to avoid the perceived pitfalls of Eutychianism and Nestorianism.  God the Word took on flesh, he became fully human without the stain of sin, the lowliness not diminishing the glory.  This was necessary for our salvation.  Christ was and is a living paradox.

That same year, 449, saw the calling of a second general council in Ephesus.  This council was engineered by Dioscorus, episcopal successor to St. Cyril in Alexandria, to rehabilitate Eutyches and hold aloft a one-nature Christology, an incipient Monophysite understanding of Christ’s nature.  Leo, as was the wont of Rome’s bishop, sent delegates.  They were to read aloud the Tome, Leo being convinced that all the Church needed was to read his account of the Incarnation and then all this controversy would end.  These delegates were steamrolled by Dioscorus and not allowed to speak.  Bishop Flavian received blows that may have led to his death shortly thereafter.  He was replaced by a supporter of Dioscorus.

Leo called Second Ephesus a Latrocinium, a den of pirates.  He wrote letters to Emperor Theodosius II trying to convince him to change his mind and overturn the decisions of the council.  He wrote letters to Pulcheria Augusta, the Emperor’s sister, enlisting her help to convince her brother.  Theodosius would not be convinced.

And then, in 450, he fell off his horse and died.  His sister married a nonentity named Marcian and became Empress.

In 451, the Council of Chalcedon occurred.  This time, Leo’s Tome, along with three letters of St. Cyril, was read out and approved by the Council — albeit, not unanimously, with protests coming from some of the Illyrian, Palestinian, and Egyptian delegates.

It seems, as Bernard Green has argued,** that Leo didn’t really know what Nestorianism was until after Chalcedon.  Seeing what the objections to the Tome were, he quickly adjusted certain passages and clarified his thinking.  Thus, his letter 124 to the monks of Palestine is more representative of the mature thought of St. Leo and would be a better testimony to his thought for the generations to come.

Leo spent the years from 451 to 465 maintaining his preaching practice in Rome, keeping order in his Metropolitan, clarifying what the Tome was supposed to say, and keeping Attila the Hun from sacking Rome (this last may not be true, but it colourful nonetheless).

He was one of the good popes.  He was also one of the first strong steps down the road to the papacy’s claims to universal jurisdiction.  We cannot have Innocent III (1160-1216) without Leo I.  He produced, ultimately, a clear, lucid theology that dealt with the problems of Eutyches and Nestorius while synthesising the teaching of the great western theologians Augustine, Ambrose, and Hilary of Poitiers with a dash of Cyril of Alexandria.  He truly deserves the appellation “the Great”, being one of only two such popes along with Gregory I.

*I was going to make up the word un-kerygmatic, but then I figured that if I’m going to neologise, why not at least make a word people will understand?

**See The Soteriology of Leo the Great, pp. 227-247.

Last Night: Creeds (my notes)

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.