Sunday, October 25, 2015

Trials of Theodosius, or how the weirdly familiar yet diverse post-Nicenes taught their leaders patience

Just as the structure of the Church began in the 4th century to take forms familiar to us, the customary religious observances of Christians began to emerge in patterns we would recognize, if we could speak the languages and belonged to the social cultures in which they played out.

In particular, the public Mass or Eucharist service took a broad pattern fundamentally unchanged to this day that crosses confessional and denominational lines. The communities of Christians also began to enlarge a calendar of feasts and special observances throughout the year—including Christmas, first celebrated in 385 in Rome but not universally until about three centuries later.

All this was brought about by the startling new reality that, for the first time, Christians could worship and pray together in public without fear for their lives. The stealthy quick services to which only trusted believers were admitted suddenly became public religious events supported by the state that even curious outsiders could attend.

My post of June 7, 2015, Kristianoi at Prayer, explained the principal, recurrent and most important ritual derived from the Last Supper, known by the 4th century as the Eucharist. In Sanctifying Time, posted August 16, 2015, I also explained a parallel, educational gathering called the Synaxis, which included opening prayers and hymns and three biblical readings and concluded with explanatory remarks by the presiding priest or bishop.

After Nicea, when services became public, the Synaxis and Eucharist were joined into one service, with the Nicene Creed recited between them. The public service started with the Synaxis through the sermon—at which point catechumens preparing for reception into the Church through baptism, communion and confirmation departed—then came the creed, a few prayers and the Eucharist proper.

Ever notice what happens after the few prayers that follow the sermon and creed (the prayers vary a little depending on the denomination)?

The priest or minister says, “The peace of the Lord be always with you,” to which the congregation replies, “And with you” (or words to that effect in both cases). Then, as if nothing has happened, the priest moves to the altar and says, “The Lord be with you,” which is met with a hearty “And also with you” from the people, followed by “Lift up your hearts” and a joyful little litany of thanksgiving.

Sound a little repetitious? It’s not; and it is.

The first exchange marks the point at which the Synaxis ended and people were dismissed with a wish that the Lord abide with them. The second is the opening of the pre-Nicene Eucharist, a hearty invitation to partake in the joy of the common union to come.

Why were they kept intact? The only plausible explanation is custom, in particular the custom of the people. Almost without exception the oldest words used in services are those the people—as opposed to leaders or celebrants—say.

Changing what a whole congregation says is a lot harder than changing what one leader says. Indeed, most of the food fights through the centuries among liturgical specialists are about the words said by leaders at worship.

Lest this seem to resolve all matters of worship until modernity, keep in mind the social geography of Christianity at the time. There was no single prayer book followed by all Christian communities.

These communities split into four major groups:
  • The East, meaning Greater Syria (modern Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and parts of Iraq and Iran), which had two major liturgical, or worship, families: the Assyro-Chaldean Rite, which worshipped in Aramaic (also known as Syriac), with a “Persian” variant in Antioch that avoided all Christological statements; and a “western” family that later became the Maronite Rite in Lebanon, which evolved to use Arabic.
  • Byzantium, meaning the rite of Constantinople, which was Greek and became the basis of Orthodox worship.
  • Africa: the Coptic rites of Alexandria, which used the Coptic language, an afroasiatic tongue written with the Greek alphabet; and the Ethiopia rites, which used a Semitic tongue known as Ge’ez.
  • Western: four families of rituals, all in Latin—the Roman, Gallic (France), Hispanic or Mozarabic in later use (Spain) and Milanese, inspired by St. Ambrose of Milan (northern Italy).
If the various forms of observance of the Eucharist offer baffling variety, even though the service had a similar outline everywhere, the calendar posed even greater problems.

It’s no surprise that among a network of secret groups, no one kept a central list of all martyrs and, when in the open, each community favored the people it knew. Moreover, some communities preferred the solar Roman calendar, others the Jewish lunar calendar, plus other variants, so there was very little uniformity in timing. This calendar problem was raised at the council of Constantinople by none other than Emperor Theodosius, who wanted everything neat and uniform, to no avail.

The end result was a very lively yet catholic Christianity that changed some of its spots according to the place and language of believers.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Church's one foundation

Catholic Christianity in the period leading to Chalcedon seems at once to neutralize the opposing views propounded by those in communion with the modern Vatican and ye 500-year-olde Protestant idea of what the structure of the Church looked like way back when.

In the Catholic view, St. Peter was anointed leader of the apostles, then, before his upside-down crucifixion in Rome (at his request so as not to receive the honor of Christ), laid hands on Linus, who was the second pope, after whom followed 263 other men in unbroken succession until Francis. In the most pious and conservative hands, the story has the entire current structure—including the title pope—emerging out of the gospel like a rabbit out of a hat.

In the Protestant view, papal primacy never existed in early Christianity and was a travesty invented by some old and very corrupt medieval men in Rome next to whom today’s pedophile priests are just petty criminals.

The historical evidence pulls to somewhere in the middle.

In Jesus’ time, what we would have called “the Church,” in reality an informal Jewish religious movement or sect, initially consisted of his 12 closest followers, named in the gospels. They may or may not have been 12. Biblical numbers are highly symbolic and should generally not be taken at face value; the biblical 12 denotes perfect rule or governance; it is also the number of the tribes of Israel.

Significantly for our purposes, “the Twelve” were regarded as the top leaders of the Christian movement after Jesus’ death and resurrection, to the point that one of their first acts of church governance was to elect someone to fill the place of Judas. Acts 1:15-26 narrates the election of Matthias.

These twelve were apostles, from the Greek apostolos meaning “envoy or delegate.” Some argue that its Christian use translated a Jewish position known in Hebrew as the sheliach, a title still used in the Hasidic movement for someone charged with disseminating the ideas of Judaism and Hasidism.

The term was translated into Latin as missio, from which we get “missionary,” which is the role they played. Peter and Paul went west to Rome and sent some of their assistants as far as France and Spain. Thomas went as far east as India, where a community in the state of Kerala traces itself back to the arrival of the apostle in the port city of Muziris (modern-day Pattanam) in the year 52.

Somewhat below the apostles were the “disciples.” In Luke 10:1, Jesus sends out 70 such followers to preach his gospel; here again is a tricky biblical number, seven being the perfect number and anything multiplied by 10 meaning a very large quantity—“a good many” might be the more precise way to put it.

By the time Paul is writing about church order in the 60s (in I and II Timothy and in Titus), he speaks of bishops (successors of the apostles), elders or priests (local stand-ins for the bishops as the church grew) and deacons (designated to service to the community, in particular caring for widows and orphans). There were also teachers and people who spoke in tongues and offered prophesies, although none of these appear to have been formal offices.

Fast-forward to the public, legal and official Christianity of the 4th century and we have a worldwide, loose federation of communities that was in constant communication thanks to Roman roads and navigation.

The established church adopted the organizational map of the Roman Empire, dividing up its territory into provinces and dioceses. In charge of dioceses were bishops, who were usually in major cities known as their “seat,” or “see.” (In later usage, groups of dioceses within a province were nominally headed by an archbishop or a primate.)

Among the sees, five came to hold a special place of privilege—Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria—their respective prestige having to do with their apostolic founders, notable successors and proximity to political power. A fair question may be raised: with all these important bishops around, who was what in the Mafia is known as capo di tutti capi, or boss of all bosses? The answer is unclear.

Since at least the time of Clement of Rome, the bishop of the imperial capital was in many respects preeminent. Clement was the fourth pope, in office from 88 to 99, although some believed he was ordained by Peter along with predecessors Linus and Cletus.

However, depending on the source, when Constantinople was founded to establish a new imperial capital, its bishop was regarded as either second or coequal.

To complicate matters, two of the most prominent sees—Rome and Alexandria—had bishops known also as “pope” (papa, meaning “father”). In contrast, Constantinople, Antioch and Jerusalem were headed by bishops also called “patriarchs.”

Thus, the evolution to one Roman pope as head of all can best be understood as the result of a historical game of musical chairs that went more or less as follows.

Originally, Jerusalem was the Mother Church, headed by St. James, meaning the apostle James the Just, son of Alphaeus, also known as “the brother of the Lord,” denoting some kinship to Jesus (probably cousin). The Roman siege and destruction of Jerusalem in 70, and later persecutions related to several other uprisings in the 1st and 2nd centuries, led to Jerusalem’s decline until Chalcedon.

The church at Antioch was founded by Peter before he went to Rome; his successor, Ignatius of Antioch, coined the term “Catholic Church.” The Antiochene church remained fiercely independent and may have been where the gospel of Matthew was edited into final form. Antioch remained the only major see that continued to have a close relationship with the rabbinical Jewish community. Indeed, its standing declined after the councils of Nicea and Constantinople because of leaders’ efforts to accommodate rabbinical criticism of the divinity of Christ.

Alexandria, home of the other pope, was overrun by two heresies, Arianism and Nestorianism, and ultimately by Islam. Today’s Alexandrian Christians are the Copts, headed by Pope Theodore II.

Constantinople weakened with the Byzantine Empire, which ended in 1453 and was subject to Islamic rule until the 20th century. Also, the patriarch severed ties with Rome in 1054 to head a smaller body of culturally segregated communities in communion with one another, as we shall see.

In the end, Rome was the only one left standing.

A few last points fill in the picture. Until becoming imperial employees in 380, the clergy we are speaking of consisted of unpaid volunteers. There is some evidence that in a number of instances bishops, priests and deacons were not merely appointed from above but noisily elected by community voice vote in which the laity participated. The record strongly suggests that all—except for deacons—were male, and most were married.

Roman primacy notwithstanding, the Church of what we’re beginning to understand as Chalcedonian Christianity was not a monolith in ritual practice, customs or usages, the topic we will turn to next.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Christianity goes public

Legalization of Christianity allowed two councils to come up with the first formally adopted essential theological synthesis—or symbolon—of faith, the Nicene Creed. The change also brought about a huge transformation in the practices of Christians, their communities and places of worship into something vaguely recognizable to the modern eye.

To understand the change it is worth taking a good quick look at the “before” and “after” pictures of Christians as a social group.


The ante-Nicene Church was secret, persecuted and run by hardy volunteers who circulated carefully guarded writings and gathered in prearranged hidden places, often homes, for prayer, worship and study.

These communities started out as overwhelmingly Jewish in belief and practice but slowly began to Hellenize as rabbis opposed the followers of Jesus and Gentiles began to overwhelm in number the Jewish Christians. The geographic center of gravity of the Christian community still tilted toward Jerusalem, the destroyed original mother church, but slowly began to turn toward culturally Greek Asia Minor, today Turkey. The Judaic influence gave way to the Hellenic, to the point that almost all extant early manuscripts of Christian writings, including the New Testament, are only available in Greek.

They were originally led by a motley crew of 11 Jewish tradespeople who used the network of Roman roads to tell the story of the executed Galilean who had risen from the dead—the major selling point among people groaning under Roman rule—and spread the faith. Before moving on, however, they delegated someone as their stand-in overseer to teach and develop the faith of the new community of believers; these episkopos (bishops) in turn delegated their role to the elders of the community (presbyteros, or priests). These were all part-time unpaid amateurs and did it only out of conviction.

In Rome they gathered in underground caves known as catacombs, which can be toured today. Elsewhere they gather in homes or other secret places. They had secret signs, such as the crudely drawn fish—in Greek, ichthys—an acrostic for Iesous Christos, Theou Yios, Soter, which translates into “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” In the classic 1951 film “Quo Vadis?” Deborah Kerr, who plays a young early Christian, draws it in the dust to test whether the Roman officer to whom she is attracted, played by Robert Taylor, is a believer; she cringes when he unwittingly reveals he is a pagan by saying, “Am I as ugly as that fish?”

In particular, eucharistic gatherings were closely protected to the point that the “secret of the Eucharist” was observed up to the 6th century in some localities; this meant that only baptized and confirmed Christians were welcome. This was for good reason: outside lay a hostile society and government, ready to kill them all at the slightest betrayal.


The post-Nicene Church was different in a variety of ways. First and foremost, it became legally tolerated in 313; in 380 it came to be the official religion of the Roman Empire—this status reverted several times to merely a legal religion, until it stuck—and, as such, subsidized by the state, had a legal status similar in some respects to that of the Church of England.

Culturally, the Church, meaning the overarching worldwide “federation” of Christian communities, was very diverse. The most respected sees were Rome, Alexandria, Antioch and Constantinople. Far out in the East, they prayed and worshipped in Aramaic and Syriac; in Greece, near the center, it was primarily Greek; and in Rome, and far off in the West, Hispania, it was Latin. The way they worshipped was similarly distinct.

The successors of the original church volunteers — by then learned academic philosophers who spoke Greek, Hebrew and Latin — became bureaucrats. The robes worn by clerics in modern church services are stylized versions of the 4th-century Roman bureaucrat’s attire, an equivalent of the late 20th century three-piece suit in Washington, D.C. Most of the leading theologians—and theological disputants—of the day were local bishops, who took seriously their charge since apostolic times to teach.

Christians no longer worshipped in private and, with state patronage, began to build structures set aside for that purpose alone, church buildings, frequently designed in an early version of a style called Romanesque. The 4th-century Church of St. Demetrius (Hagios Demetrios) in Thessalonica is a splendid example that still stands today.

Hagios Demetrios, Thessaloniki, 2008
photo by DMY Licensed via Wikimedia Commons
(Click on picture to view larger)
Buttressing all this activity were the post-Nicene Church Fathers, or the intellectual philosopher-theologians who tackled developing the thinking of the community. Their works responded to the issues of the day, which were very different from our own. Sometimes they wrote in opposition to criticism the still pagan world, often enough in vitriolic disputes among themselves and also against heresies that arose in the Christian Church. Their writings are regarded today as foundational to Christian faith, even if they do not have the canonical seal of being regarded as divine revelation.

The Road to Chalcedonian Christianity

The post-Nicene period—roughly 4th and 5th centuries—is when the foundations of all existing branches of Christianity were laid down. Six hundred or so years later, eastern and western Christianity would split; a thousand years or so later, Luther would claim that nothing after the 5th century was binding on Christians. These divisions persist.

The common Christianity held today by all Christians—often called Chalcedonian Christianity after a noted council in 451 that we shall discuss—developed at a time of enormous historical cataclysms. Just as Christianity gained an open public purchase in society, the existing political order began to crack, splinter and ultimately collapse.

The Roman Empire split into two after emperor Theodosius the Great died in 395. Rome was sacked beginning in 410, and the last western emperor was forced to resign by a Barbarian chieftain in 476.

The eastern empire based in Constantinople continued with ever weakening sway until 1453, when the city fell to invaders. However, already by the 10th century those Muslim invaders had begun to proselytize for Islam in Asia Minor, the Levant and North Africa, contributing to the effective collapse of a Christianity weakened by heresy in those areas. The lands that Jesus knew have not been predominantly Christian for at least a millennium. But this is a tease of what we will review further along.

Before all that, I will spend the next few entries reviewing the Church’s emerging structure and uses of worship and the leading ideas and thinkers in the post-Nicene era. Then we will wrap up the era with Chalcedon.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The first instance of committee writing

In this final post on the Creed, we tackle what I would call the first recorded instance of Christian “committee writing”; it occurred in Constantinople in 381.

This almost has the feel of a laundry list of items drawn up by people trying to make sure nothing essential is forgotten. But they didn’t realize that playing with the words so much yielded perplexing results that would lead to unending arguments.
 We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
This statement is known as the “four marks” of the Church, the collective assembly of Christians, affirming that it is
  • one (Ephesians 4:5-6)—a whole entity united in belief, of which the local churches are only a part (Paul uses “the church of God that is in Corinth” in I Corinthians 1:2);
  • holy—set apart for God’s purpose, yet not devoid of sin (in Mark 2:17, Jesus says “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners”);
  • catholic—universal, geographically, ethnically or by gender (Galatians 3:28), as well as in the wholeness of faith within each locality (in the 4th century, “Catholic Christians” were those who were not heretical or estranged by their beliefs); and
  • apostolic—rooted in the living traditions taught by the apostles, including each local church’s bishops, who were ordained through the laying of hands on their heads by tactile successors of the Twelve (this claim is made today by Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox communions).
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
The last verse of the gospel of Matthew sets forth the commission to go out and baptize the world. The original use of baptism in Judaism had been as a sign of divine forgiveness; it became also a symbol of commitment to the Christian faith.

Early on, forgiveness was offered only once in a lifetime (baptism is still only administered once). Falling back into sin was deemed a sign of insincere conversion (what some Evangelical Protestants even today call “backsliding”).

The lack of an ordinary way for a Christian who committed a grave sin to be reconciled with God by those given the power “to loose and to bind” (Matt. 16:19) is widely cited as the reason Constantine converted when he thought he was dying (and was therefore unlikely ever to sin gravely again). In practice, however, there is evidence bishops did remit sins outside baptism.

After the Diocletian persecution, which nearly wiped out Christianity, bishops allowed Christians who had renounced the faith to confess their wrongdoing before the Christian community and be forgiven. This is distinct from the sign of forgiveness before communion in the Eucharist, which was meant to heal internal rifts among believers.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come.
Judaism debated the question of the afterlife. The Pharisees, who are the theological ancestors of rabbinical Judaism after the year 70, believed in some, much debated, form of afterlife. The Sadducees did not. In Matthew 22:29-33, Jesus is placed in the middle of the debate and he comes down squarely on the side of the Pharisees.
This Hebrew word, which means “so be it” or “truly” (often translated as “verily”), was absent from the creed approved in Nicea, but was added in Constantinople. It is found in the Old and New Testaments and was and still is used to conclude Jewish prayer, so as to confirm personal assent to what has just been said.