Sunday, August 23, 2015


Most Christians are familiar with a statement of faith commonly recited as part of the Eucharist service, the Nicene Creed, which resulted from the first few ecumenical, or worldwide, councils of the Church.

The first such council, held in Nicea (today Iznik, Turkey) in 325 was presided by Hosius, bishop of Corduba (today Córdoba, Spain). The council was hosted by Emperor Constantine, who sent letters to all the bishops of the known world—at the time effectively the Roman empire—inviting them to the meeting.

The Church, or loose confederation of local believing communities, already had customs and rituals and ways of organizing themselves that were more or less common to all. Some had been described in the New Testament and common usage made them normative, but there were ever new challenges and this was the first time everyone could get together without fear of persecution.

The term “church” (ekklesia) was a Greek word for a legislative body—not for a building or a community—borrowed by Christians for their decision-making community meetings; eventually, it came to mean, by extension, the whole community.

There was no professional clergy before Nicea (St. Paul notably made a living as a tent maker), but there were specialized functions within the community. Churches were headed by bishops (episkopos, literally “top head”), who were originally the only equivalent of modern clergy. They taught the faith, baptized and presided at the Supper of the Lord.

Over time, as communities grew, there would be more localized eucharistic gatherings and the bishop would delegate leadership of the Supper to one of the older men (presbyteros, “old man”); these came to be the priests, charged with very limited ritual duties.

Helping the priests were the deacons (diakonos, “servant”), who assisted during the rituals but specialized in helping solve the material problems of the members of the communities, caring for the poor, widows and orphans and so forth. There appears to be scriptural evidence that at least one of them was a woman, Phoebe, mentioned in Romans 16:1–2.

There were also other functions, including teachers and prophets, yet only the first three mentioned above were eventually recognized as ordained ministers.

However, even if the officials of the organization itself were fairly uniform everywhere, there were divergences. There were differences in ritual practices—such as whether one followed the Roman or Jewish calendar for celebrating Easter. There also arose doctrinal divergences—such as how to respond to a variety of heresies.

As noted, at this time most of the heresies concerned who Jesus the Christ was believed to be. The doctrinal issue that faced Nicea was Arianism, then new, which denied Jesus was divine; many of the contemporary heresies of Gnostic influence denied he was human.

So far, the responses had come from polemical responses by Church Fathers, such as Tertullian and others. There were a few local councils from prominent churches, such as the church of Alexandria and several churches in the Roman province of Hispania (Spain), which declared followers of several heresies as anathema, or cursed, and therefore forbidden to partake in the Supper of the Lord with the community.

In general, most of the heresies of this period sound odd to the modern Western observer. They involve thinking about the person of Jesus and the nature of God in highly intellectual ways that were distinctly Eastern, which then meant Greek, rather than Western, which then meant Latin or Roman, and generally pragmatic.

The response came in the form of symbolon, or creeds, of which there would be several in the next few hundred years. They stated the essential beliefs in ways that left little room for the heresies of the day.

The teachings of Nicea and the six councils that followed are accepted by Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist and Orthodox and many other Christians. The teachings of these councils are deemed to summarize the essentials of the faith.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Sanctifying time

The beginning of the 4th century was momentous for Christianity. In 311, the Roman emperor Galerius issued a decree of toleration; in 315 his successor Constantine converted to Christianity on what he thought was his deathbed.

The task of Christians was no longer just to go out and tell the world, certainly all the Roman world had heard and its authorities had listened. Missions to the Barbarians would come later.

Meanwhile, with the apostles long dead and almost three centuries since Jesus had been taken up into the heavens with the promise that he would return, attention turned to the notion of “sanctifying time,” or making human life holy throughout the long wait until Christ returned.

Already by the end of the 3rd century and the beginning of the 4th, there had arisen men who pulled away from life in society. These early monks, or hermits, came to be known as the Desert Fathers. The first was Paul of Thebes (227-332) but the most famous, regarded as the founder of the desert monasticism movement, was Anthony the Great (251-356).

The Desert Fathers recognized that, even with the leaven of Christians, Greco-Roman society was very far from living under God’s rule, as the Lord prayed. Moreover, they felt society’s manners to be a source of unending temptation and distraction from the task of being a Christian, This is the running theme of Christian monasticism ever since: not that it is better to pull away, but that some weaker people who wish to remain steadfast simply must.

Through the persecutions there were only two religious feasts, fairly close to one another.

Easter was a nocturnal festival, like the Jewish Pesach (Passover). From very early days it was the feast for conferring baptism, confirmation, and initiation into the Eucharist on the catechumens.

On Easter eve, Saturday night, the new Christians would “arise” from what was often a partial or total immersion baptism cleansed of their sin. Then they would be confirmed by the bishop with oils and— since at least the 3rd century—a traditional slap in the face for fortitude. Finally, after midnight they would be welcome to commune in the Body of Christ in the Supper of the Lord, as they celebrated the feast of the Resurrection, or Easter.

The only other religious feast before toleration of Christianity was Pentecost, also borrowed from Judaism, but infused with Christian meaning: the coming of the Holy Spirit described in Acts 2.

Another way of sanctifying time was the practice of Lent, which arose in the 4th century. Catechumens, or people seeking conversion into the faith, had been usually required to fast for a fortnight or so in preparation of their baptism on Easter morn.

As preparations for initiation became public, a number of the Christians who had already been initiated chose to accompany the catechumens in their fasts and prayers for 40 days before Easter, in remembrance of the 40 days of fast and prayer spent by Jesus in the desert, according to the gospels (some scholars speculate that this may refer to the time Jesus supposedly spent with a Jewish monastic community called the Essenes).

Similarly, time was sanctified by remembering the date in which local martyrs where executed, recalled as the date of their “birth” into eternal life, which became a saint’s day.

Local churches kept the remains of martyrs—one of the uses of the catacombs, with pieces often shared with other communities as relics—and recited their names during the Eucharistic Prayer, asking for their intercession to God on behalf of the community. On a saint’s day, the martyr would be especially recalled.

The observance of Christmas started in the West around the end of the 3rd century. In the East it was observed a century later, but on January 6, the Epiphany, rather than on December 25.

In Rome the December feast coincided with a particularly riotous pagan feast, the Saturnalia. The argument has been advanced that the Roman date was chosen despite existing traditions that Jesus was born in summertime, which modern scholars generally accept, precisely to “baptize” the Saturnalia. (This approach was later used in missions beyond the Roman world, as we shall see.)

Finally, there is the sanctifying of the week through the celebration of a Eucharist on a Sunday. This had been traditional as a remembrance of the resurrection, but it was a religious observance only.

There was no attempt in the first three centuries to link it to the Sabbath. Indeed, there was some polemic even among Christians about “idling” on that day. Then Constantine decreed that Sunday would be a legal day of rest and Christian sabbatarianism was launched.

The conversion of the emperor was the crowning event of a process by which Christians made such inroads into all levels of Roman society that the outcome was almost inevitable. The change established the Christian faith as a public religion. For centuries it was, indeed, the dominant religion of Europe, transforming Western society perhaps forever.

This changed some outward practices of the faith, as I have recounted.

What happened to the teachings of the faith, its priestly rituals and the sturcture of its religious organization, however, is better told in the story of the First Council of Nicea, which took place in the year 325. To this we shall turn next.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

The way the Christians were

“Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.” These are the words of an angel in Acts 1:11, which are read on Ascension Sunday.

It is an epilogue of the gospel story, written by the author of the gospel of Luke. Jesus has just said a few parting words, begun to fly up into the sky lifted by a cloud, with the apostles left behind staring up, mouths agape. The text says two men in white robes appeared before them; one of them spoke the words I have just quoted.

To me, this is a very moving scene that expresses the bereavement of the apostles at finding themselves without Jesus. Of course, he would come back; it would not be long.

Indeed, Jesus had spoken of imminent change on a number of occasions. “Truly I say to you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.” (Matthew 24:34) However, Jesus’ parting words that day were: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.“ (Acts 1:7)

So long as there was fierce persecution, the Jewish eschatology (or thinking about last things) found in the book of Revelations (and Daniel) held sway among Christians who expected, perhaps out of their dire need to hope, that Christ’s return was imminent.

The Christians were a persecuted minority, gathering in private homes, circulating letters and documents among themselves at great risk, living lives so quietly devoid of external religious expression that some thought they were atheists.

They gathered on Sunday, the day the Lord rose, for the Supper of the Lord, variously called by the Greek words for Eucharist (Eukaristia, thanksgiving) or Eulogy (Eulogion, remembrance)—it was both.

This was a quick, quiet, unsentimental and secret ceremony—only those baptized, who were immediately confirmed, were allowed in. To the modern observer it might resemble our sparsely attended, early morning Eucharist or Mass celebrated on a work day. The only major differences were the setting (not in a church building) and the absence of biblical readings or sermon. The opening hymnody, readings and  sermon that a modern churchgoer would associate with the Eucharist service were reserved for another, more catechetical (or educational) evening gathering during the week, called the Synaxis.

The best scholars tell us that there was a striking absence of any devotional practice that could arouse pious subjectivity. This squares with the Jewish conceptions held by the apostles, for whom there was no “spirituality” that did not have a concrete and material expression. Notably, it was Gnosticism, the first major heresy, that pulled towards precisely the kind of spirit-matter duality that later spurred individual “spiritual” feelings and a whole universe of sometimes misleading piety.

Christians spoke of the practical aspects of living their faith as merely “The Way.” An outline of this way of life is found in The Didache (Gr. for “Teaching”), an early summary or catechism written in the mid to late 1st century. Its existence was known by reference for centuries—some thought it belonged in the New Testament—but its full text was lost until a copy was discovered in 1873.

The men and women of the Early Church did not run the risks of torture and death merely for moving experiences. They did so because they believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, or Christ, who announced the beginning of God’s rule and set forth the way to live in God’s order.

(A full text of The Didache can be read by clicking the new page tab at the top of this blog, titled Reference.)

Monday, August 3, 2015

Teachings vs. Heresy

Today’s Christianity is not, without a doubt, a collection of the unvarnished teachings of Jesus to the apostles. Part of the reason for this has to do with the transmission of his words, but part of it has to do with the dynamic between Christian teachings and heresies.

To understand what happened one need only grasp a few things about two terms and one phrase.

The first of these is orthodoxy (from the Greek meaning “true teaching”). This is what Christian leaders, such as the apostles, taught and understood to be the teaching of Jesus. Even so, inevitably difficulties arose in passing these on or answering questions from after the teachings were given and received.

The opposite of teaching, or a choice to depart from them, is called heterodoxy or heresy, respectively. The funny thing about heresy is that it usually involves an aspect of orthodoxy. The error, as heresy has been historically been called, consists in exaggerating the significance of some small part of teaching.

For example, sometime in the sixth century some Christians opposed the use of icons or images, arguing that this is against the commandment forbidding graven images (“You shall not make for yourself an idol” Exodus 20:4). The iconoclasts, or icon destroyers, went about smashing religious images until Christians came to recognize that so long as one did not actually worship the images, but rather used them to recall what they evoked, the spirit of the commandment was fulfilled.

In the heresy of iconoclasm, the truth of the teaching against idols was exaggerated in importance, to the point of justifying violence and disrespect to what others valued. The teaching had only meant to stop believers from imagining that inanimate things could have special and divine powers—not from painting or carving images that would remind them of other true teachings.

Finally, there is the phrase “development of doctrine,” which explains how Christians dealt with questions, heresies and other problems not envisioned by the discourses of Jesus in the gospels or apostolic interpretation. To some, this means that the apostles and their successors, the bishops, had to make things up, possibly perverting the original.

However, from apostolic times, great effort was made not to add to the faith, but rather to cut off what is not in consonance with received teaching. The latter approach is called the via negativa: the road of negation.

The apostles and bishops felt they could authoritatively say, “this goes beyond or distorts what Jesus taught.” They did not feel they could add new teachings.

When considering such questions, keep in mind that teachings concern essentials, such as the existence of God, that Jesus is the Messiah or God forbids murder. Lesser matters, such as the various rules of rituals and other practices are disciplines, good for you perhaps (or not), but not essential.