In this post, I will discuss the situation as though orthodox Christianity were true. This is, I think, a necessary premise for trying to come up with a coherent discussion of the definition of Christianity. I am not here advocating that people accept this premise. It is perfectly possible, as an intellectual exercise, to deduce the consequences of a premise without committing oneself to the truth of that premise. Indeed, not only possible, but something very worthwhile. Not only with our own favoured premises, but more importantly those of our opponents. How else are we meant to prove that a world-view is true or false, but by honestly working out the conclusions of the premises and comparing them against reality? And that is what I ask of my readers here: to try to understand how someone who believes that orthodox Christianity is true might start looking to define what is core Christian belief and what isn't. So even if you don't accept the existence of Jesus or Paul, you can still try to think through how someone who does accept their existence would reason, and come up with a list of beliefs that characterise orthodox Christianity. Those beliefs would then stand on their own as a definition of the belief part of Christianity, and with the definition in hand and understood, we are then in a position to discuss whether or not the faith is true.
I have barely begun a series on Bertrand Russell's Why I am not a Christian, and already I feel compelled to launch into a major digression. The subject in question is how to define Christianity, especially Christian belief. Christian practice is not mentioned by Russell, except to berate Christian hypocrisy -- sadly a far too easy target to aim at. However, since he is questioning the intellectual and moral foundations of Christianity, it is perfectly right and proper for him to focus on doctrine. Russell made an important observation: if you look at what those who claim to be Christian believe, such is the diversity in today's world that it is difficult to come up with a concise definition. He wrote in 1927, when the first wave of theological liberalism was at its height. That wave foundered in the 1930s, when the discovery of early manuscript fragments and better scholarship showed that the speculations of the nineteenth century German theologians, which required the New Testament texts to have been composed in the late second century, were wholly false. A second wave of theological liberalism launched from the 1950s, and, unfortunately, this has not yet run its course despite a lack of solid evidence for the premises which distinguish it from orthodoxy on one hand and atheism on the other. Thus what Russell said in the 1920s remains true today. It is difficult to find a full-bloodied definition of Christianity which will be agreed upon by every contemporary Churchman. Even Russell's three remaining points: a belief in God, in immortality, and that Jesus was especially wise will be denied by some (or at least, those terms would be defined by some in ways that others consider to be a denial of them).
I agree with Russell that trying to find points of consensus among today's churchmen is not a good way of coming up with a useful definition of Christianity. I disagree with him on two counts. Firstly, I disagree that this is the best way of defining the essential Christian beliefs. In my previous post, I suggested that look back to what the founders of the religion considered essential to determine the core beliefs of a religion, and I will expand on this more in my next post. Secondly, I disagree that in earlier times it was any easier to define a 'full-bloodied' Christianity, by, for example, just looking at the creeds. Russell mentioned two time periods when this might have been possible: those of the two greatest Latin theologians, Augustine and Aquinas. My first intention in this post is to partially examine the situation at the time of Augustine, to show that there was just as much dissension then as there is today.
A second purpose of this post is to discuss what the difference between Christian heresy and non-Christian belief is. If we define Christianity in terms of what its founders, Jesus Himself and the apostles, believed, then this presents a target of what it means to be a good Christian. Every deviation from this target, either in belief or, just as importantly, in action, would make one a bad Christian. This is because badness, as with everything else, is just an absence of goodness, or deviation from the standard of goodness. The purpose of a teacher is to teach. That defines the standard. A good teacher is one who meets that standard, whose students leave knowing a little bit more bout his subject than when they entered. A bad teacher spends all their time fishing. It is the deviation from the standard - that a teacher is one whose purpose is to impart knowledge to his students - that makes the teacher bad; unless he is a teacher of how to ensnare river biology, his students will be as ignorant when they leave his pond (I dare not call it a classroom) as they were when they arrived. Fortunately, we are not saved from sin (any deviation from the standard of moral goodness) and the wrath of God by being a good Christian; we are saved by the unmerited favour of God acting through our trust in His promises and desire that they will be fulfilled. I say fortunately because I doubt that anyone today meets that standard, not likely in doctrine, and certainly not in the practical aspects of Christianity. But go too far from the doctrinal standard and one slips from being merely a bad Christian to a heretic; and even further and one slips from being a heretic to having a non-Christian belief.
My question is where are the boundaries between badness and heresy, and between heresy and non-Christianity. If a Christian is one who follows Christ, that is who accepts the teachings of Christ as mediated through the apostles, and tries to live them out, then a good Christian is one who does that well. Essential Christian doctrine is that which the founders of Christianity considered to be essential: Jesus, and His apostles and relations who formed the initial core of the religion. That is good Christianity. As I said, Christian salvation is achieved through trust in God's promises and a desire for them to be fulfilled. Now to trust in someone's promises, one needs to have an accurate enough belief both of those promises and in the person who made them. Some aspects of Christianity affect the understanding of what those promises are and how they are to be achieved, and others, while still wrong, are incidental to it. None of our beliefs are perfectly precise; our beliefs are a region of uncertainty rather than a distinct point. So I will make the distinction between bad, but still saving, Christianity and heresy by saying that if our region of uncertainty overlaps the region of beliefs concerning salvation which lie close enough to the truth to have no practical effect, then we are merely a bad Christian rather than a heretic. If there is no overlap, then we have slipped into clear heresy.
What about the boundary between heresy and non-Christian belief? Here I will say that if the beliefs originated from a tradition spanning back to the original founders of the faith, with little of consequence imported from outside sources, then it is a heresy. The tradition may have been misinterpreted or misunderstood, perhaps some aspects of it exaggerated at the expense of others; some mistakes made in reasoning. This leads to error, even serious error, but still is recognisably Christian, since it originated from a (misuse of) Christian tradition. However, if the beliefs were to a substantial extent inspired not by the tradition of Christianity stretching back to its founders, but from some outside philosophy or claimed revelation, then we have a non-Christian belief system.
I expect that my readers will immediately have had a thought. I call this site The Quantum Thomist. My beliefs are based in part on classical philosophy and in part on modern physics and in part on Christian tradition. Doesn't that by my own admission make me a non-Christian?
I said that the Christian believes in a set of doctrines which can be derived solely from a tradition stretching back to the founders of Christianity. That doesn't mean that some of those doctrines can't also be informed from another source. All it means is that the Christian can't accept anything which came from an outside source and which contradicts those doctrines while remaining a Christian. They are, of course, free to accept those contradictory beliefs and leave Christianity. Indeed, it is perfectly possible, and has happened on many occasions (not least the greatest theologian of them all, Augustine), that someone will reason from philosophy to accept various conclusions, and then suddenly realise with a shock that they are well on the way to becoming a Christian. The initial evidence for their faith was not from Christian sources, but their faith was still consistent with the Christian sources, and that is enough. Philosophy, Physics, Mathematics, History, and other fields of study also target the truth. They have several uses to the Christian.
- Firstly, Christian doctrine is not comprehensive. There is a lot of truth out there which is simply irrelevant to Christianity. To study it, we need to learn Philosophy, Physics, Mathematics, History and the rest; each informed by our Christianity, but each leading the way in their own fields.
- Secondly, Christianity is built on the premise that what Jesus and the Apostles taught is true. That premise needs to be justified; and clearly, in part, we need to turn outside Christianity itself to Physics, Philosophy, History and so on to make the case.
- Thirdly, Philosophy begins from a set of axioms. We have a decision to make: which set of axioms should we choose? This will be informed by our physics (we need our philosophy to be consistent with our physics), but that alone is not enough. The Christian would choose axioms which are also consistent with Christian doctrine (whether he chooses these premises because he is a Christian, or chooses them for other reasons and then discovers that he is a Christian). Thus a Christian's whole philosophy is shaped by his Christianity. Reasoning from that philosophy will lead the Christian into other, non theological, areas of study. So what about Physics, History and the rest? Surely they are built upon brute facts, and thus immune from this argument? Yes, but those experimental facts or historical evidence need to be interpreted; and how we interpret them depends on our philosophy. The difference between the Christian and the atheist is not over scientific experimental evidence or even scientific theory, but over the philosophical framework used to interpret those theories. My claim is that only a theist framework is fully consistent with the experimental evidence; I expect atheists claim that only their framework will do. But this isn't the place for that discussion.
- Fourthly, philosophy has its place in the systematisation, justification and completion of Christian doctrine. I see the basic beliefs of Christianity as analogous to experimental evidence: consistent with reason, but derived from a source outside reason. The philosophy is analogous to scientific theory: it is what allows us to connect those beliefs together, and understand what grounds them and what they imply. The philosophy is bound to the data (both Christian revelation and experimental observation), and represents our best effort to understand it all. If a philosophy disagrees with the data, then we discard it, and find a better one. Thus the use of philosophy does not contradict Christian doctrine; rather correct philosophy is an essential compliment to it.
In the late fourth and early fifth century, Augustine had to cope with numerous different perspectives. He himself was best known for opposing the Donatists and the Pelagians.
The Donatists were, on the face of it, not that different from the Catholics. The main point of difference was what was to be done with those who had apostatised during the last great Roman persecution, and, after the coming of Constantine, had come crawling back to the Christian faith. The Donatists believed that by denying Christ they had effectively undone all their previous grace from their earlier Christian life. They had to be re-baptised, reconfirmed, re-catechised, and gradually re-work their way up the Church hierarchy. The Catholics, on the other hand, preached the forgiveness and mercy of God. Once they had repented of their lapse, and paid penance, they could resume their old offices. There was no need to be re-baptised and re-ordained, indeed it would be an insult to God to do so. The issue came to a head when the Catholics appointed one of the lapsed as a Bishop in North Africa. The Donatists rejected this choice, and appointed their own Bishop. Woo-Hoo! Rebellion, discord, schism and all that. There is no greater spectator sport than watching Christians fight among themselves, as long as you are not a part of it.
Augustine's main concern was that the Donatists violated one of the main tenets of Christianity: that our salvation is though the grace (unmerited favour) of God. Through baptism, God confers the grace which, in time, acting on and through our faith (trust that God's promises will be fulfilled) and charity (desire for goodness), would work out to gradually save us from our sin (imperfection) and the wrath of God (targeted not against us, but against our contentment in our failure and misery). Grace, by its nature, is not something we can work to earn. It doesn't matter how much trust we have, how much charity, how many alms we give to the poor - even though such virtues and ways of life are all of the utmost excellence, without grace they can never be good enough, because the standard God requires is beyond our natural reach. Augustine argued that if we cannot earn Grace through our good works, then neither can we lose it though our evil works. We might, of course, lose its consequences, if we set aside the faith and charity which grace works through. But once we pick them up again, the grace is still there, and can resume its work. Thus the Donatist's error was fundamentally about denying the power and sufficiency of the work of God, which is a somewhat more serious matter than who should be bishop in North Africa.
To the modern ear, particularly the non-Christian modern ear, this might all seem trivial. To the theologically aware, however, the distinction that Augustine made was crucial. It is completely wrong to say that Christian is inflexible: believe precisely this, or you are out! No Christian in history has ever accepted that. Yet it is equally wrong to say that Christian doctrine has no boundaries. There is a definite region in the scope of beliefs where if you step outside, then you are out of the club. In some places, those boundaries are quite wide, and there is a great deal of room for diversity of belief. In other places, those related to salvation from sin, both its result and mechanism, where the boundaries are narrow. The doctrine of grace is one of those narrow points. Believe that you can either earn God's grace through your goodness (pride), or that you can disqualify yourself through your wickedness, and you won't get it.
So were the Donatists Christian? They accepted the Trinitarian and Christological creeds; they accepted the nature of God and sin; they accepted Christian ethics, and practised it as well as anyone has. They probably even accepted the doctrine of grace, not aware of their contradiction. Their mistake was simply that they failed to correctly balance between discipline and mercy. I see no evidence that the core beliefs that distinguished the Donatists from the Christians came from outside sources; therefore the Donatists were Christian heretics rather than non-Christian.
Next, Augustine had to deal with the Pelagians. Pelagius represented, I am much ashamed to say, the first major contribution of British Christianity to theology. He came to Rome, and preached eloquently against the Arians. Since Arianism was the major issue of the time, that won him friends. But then, he stated that it was theoretically possible for someone to earn their salvation. Oh dear. Time for another inter-Christian cat-fight.
Augustine took issue with this. Obviously, there are again implications concerning the doctrine of Grace. But Pelagius' mistake (according to orthodox Christian theology) ran deeper than that. An important Biblical image is that we are naturally slaves to sin. As such we are born in bondage, conceived in iniquity, citizens of a nation of rebels against reality, and totally unable to free ourselves by our own efforts. Just as I inherit my Englishness from my parents, and their parents before them, back until that marauding and vicious Saxon who was the first of my ancestors to step foot on this sceptred Isle, so I inherit my citizenship of the city of the worldly rebels from the first of my ancestors who stood up in rebellion against God. Just as I cannot emigrate from England without a visa, neither can I emigrate from the rebellious kingdom without an invitation. In the West, this doctrine is known as original sin; in the East, the substance of the doctrine is slightly different and it is called ancestral corruption. I am something of a hybrid here: I prefer the East's name, but Augustine's expression of the doctrine.
So why is original sin, or ancestral corruption, important to the Christian? Because without it, the work of Christ is unnecessary, and, if unnecessary, it makes no sense that God would have used a method with such a cost. It is central to the Christian theology of salvation that
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.Yet if we are not under the curse of the law, then why do we need a redeemer (that is somebody who pays off the debt of our slavery)? We might need a great moral teacher or philosopher to inspire us to greatness, or a worker of miracles, or a man of profound wisdom, but we wouldn't need any more than that. We could build heaven on our own. And, of course, many people throughout history have tried, and ended up with an earthly version of hell. Yet God sent us a redeemer because (if Christianity is true), that is what we need the most and first of all. A moral teacher, of course, would also be great; but his teachings will be of far too little effect unless we are first redeemed. But if Pelagius was right, then a moral teacher would have been good enough. By following his teaching, we would have been able to build our own little village of God within the city of rebellion. But then, God giving a person of Himself as sacrifice would be unnecessary, an act of cosmic child abuse, and thus against God's benevolent nature. In orthodox Christianity, it is the most perfect expression of God's self-sacrificing love for His creation, and God's benevolence forbade Him from doing otherwise.
Of course, anyone who isn't a Christian will look at what I have written and say that it is a load of baloney and nonsense. And that is fine; I didn't write it to persuade readers of its truth, but to give a glimpse of why the doctrine of original sin, or ancestral corruption, or whatever you want to call it, is necessary for the internal consistency of Christianity. Of course, space compels me to give no more than a very leaky glimpse; for full details, you can do far worse than reading through the works of Augustine.
So Pelagius attacks two essential aspects of Christian doctrine: firstly the doctrine of grace, and secondly the doctrine of human nature. That, to my mind, puts him a little bit further into the realms of heresy than the Donatists. But is it enough to strip him of the title of Christian? Again, by the standards I am using, I would say no. There was no evidence that his error was based on non-Christian philosophy; he was, again, a heretic who misunderstood the Christian sources rather than someone who sought to supplant them.
Next, I should mention the Arians. Augustine didn't specifically target Arianism in his writings, since by his time the intellectual battle was won, but there were still plenty of Arians around. Indeed, Augustine's greatest work was written in response to the sacking of Rome by the Arian barbarians.
Arius was a preacher who came to prominence in the early fourth century. We don't know that much about him for certain, so my brief biography is going to be full of 'probablies,' which represent no more than my own interpretation of the evidence, and since I am not an expert on the controversy, take all my probablies with a large grain of salt. He was probably born in Egypt in the late third century, probably to a Christian family. This was certainly still the time of persecutions of Christians. Christians could not move, preach or gather openly. Thus, there probably wasn't that much direct interaction between the Christian Churches. Most of the time, the persecution was local: there would be an outbreak in Egypt, then an outbreak in Rome, then an outbreak in Greece, and in these cases a Christian family could escape it by fleeing to another city. Occasionally, there was an Empire-wide persecution, so it didn't matter where you lived; if caught you would face, at best, imprisonment, torture, and the most painful death in the public circus (at worst, you might deny your Christian faith, escape the punishment but suffer more later).
Christian academies had by now been well established in the most prominent cities of the Roman Empire, used for the training of churchmen in philosophy and theology. The two most famous schools, and fiercest rivals, were in Alexandria in Egypt and Antioch in Syria. For some reason, Arius probably chose to be educated in Antioch rather than his probable home city. A monarchian heretic (similar to modalism described below) was certainly appointed to be Bishop of Antioch in the late third century, and subsequently disposed, and when Arius probably came to Antioch probably a little later, the Church there was probably still in a great deal of turmoil. There he probably made contact with a number of people who would later play a prominent role in the debates to follow, and would become Bishops in Asia Minor. Between them, they probably worked out the doctrine that bears Arius' name, possibly inspired by one of their teachers, a man who was later martyred in Antioch. Then there came the final, and most devastating, Empire wide persecution. Most of the leading Christians were imprisoned, tortured, mutilated, banished to the mines or killed in this period. It ended only when Constantine marched from Britain, defeated those with a rival claim to the Imperial throne, and declared Christianity illegal. Arius and his probable fellow students were probably among the lucky ones who escaped. It was probably during this persecution or shortly before that Arius returned to Egypt, eventually becoming presbyter at a large church just outside Alexandria.
The Bishop of Alexandria at the time was Alexander, a very capable man. He had been mentoring a young man, Athanasius, who had shown his genius from a young age. When the controversy broke out Athanasius was still a deacon in the church, but probably had already written what is still regarded as one of the masterpieces of Christian literature, his tract On the Incarnation, which spelled out the orthodox view of Christ's deity, how it was entwined throughout Christian doctrine, and necessary for Christianity's logical consistency.
At a local council of the church in Egypt, Arius confronted Alexander and Athanasius. With Arius' heretical views exposed, the council voted to excommunicate him from the church. The primary focus of unity of the church is Jesus Christ. Obviously for us who live in the centuries after the ascension, we do not have access to Jesus in person in the assured way that the apostles did. So the focus of unity shifts in part to the accurate knowledge about Jesus and His mission, the rule and deposit of faith handed down from that first generation. Since the unity of the Church is centred around knowledge concerning Jesus, then clearly divergent beliefs represent a breaking of that unity. That breaking is present whether one remains in the organisation of the church, but since the church ought to be manifestation of the Church on earth, it should also lead to a visible split. Thus, in the ancient Church, those who diverge on key matters of doctrine were cast out of the community.
For example, suppose someone believes that Jesus was an atheist Marxist, and lives their lives and worships accordingly, and yet still calls themselves Christian. That belief is most certainly false. That person is therefore not venerating Jesus, but a rival, a figment of his own imagination. When he declares that 'Jesus is Lord', what he means is that someone other than Jesus is Lord, since he has substituted the name of Jesus onto another person. But since the Church is united by the worship of Jesus, that man is in disunity. So, if he does not repent, he should be expelled. The same would be true if a member of the Conservative party started saying that Stalin or Mao was onto something, or a Labour party member decided that trade unions weren't such a good idea after all, and people should instead look to invest in capital. The people involved are perfectly free to come to those conclusions, but they are not free to do so while remaining members of an organisation which exists to promote the opposite perspective. The man who venerates Stalin may have many good qualities, but he cannot rightly call himself Conservative.
That is not to say that the core doctrines of the Church are a single point, which everyone must adhere to. After two thousand years, the rule of faith has obviously diverged in the different communities who have passed it on, and the early records contain a fair amount of ambiguity. Thus there is room for disagreement, to a certain extent. But only to a certain extent. There are boundary lines, and in some cases the New Testament and the writings of the early post-New Testament Church are perfectly clear, leaving only a tiny range of valid interpretations. The doctrine of the Trinity is one of those places, where there is little room for manoeuvre, and its importance to the internal consistency of Christianity is such that if you step outside those bounds, then soon everything else falls apart. Of course, Christianity is not only about beliefs, but one also needs to desire to act in accordance with those beliefs. Therefore certain behaviours are also grounds for excommunication. Committing incest with your father's wife is the classic example.
In any case, after Arius was excommunicated, he appealed to his former classmates, now important Bishops in Asia Minor and Syria. They immediately sought to reinstate Arius, and gave a stern rebuke to the Egyptians. Naturally the outcome of this was a full-blown civil war within the Church.
This was all something of a headache and embarrassment for Emperor Constantine, who had just come to power on the back of the Christian symbol and had legitimised the religion. To resolve the issue, he called a council of the whole Church, with Bishops and their delegations coming from across the Roman and Persian Empires, and beyond, to the city of Nicea. There both sides were able to put their cases.
Both sides claimed to be holding to the ancient rule of faith, but there was no doubt that Alexander and Athanasius had by far the stronger case. They had on their side the direct interpretation of various passages of the Bible, various writings from Churchmen up to that time, the internal coherence of Christian doctrine, and the agreement of almost every Christian community worldwide. Recall that development of the Churches until that time had been, not completely, but largely independent. The chances of one isolated community deviating from orthodoxy into Arianism was quite plausible, especially since Arianism provides a superficially straight-forward resolution of one of the most difficult issues in Christian theology. The chances of all Christian communities but one independently deviating from Arianism into the same orthodoxy is considerably smaller. The Arians, on the other hand, appealed to various allegorical passages of the Bible, which by their nature are open to numerous interpretations, the simplicity of their solution to the problem of the Trinity, and to Platonic philosophy.
The result of Nicea was almost unanimous, with the Alexandrians declared victors. The Arians were asked to recant or leave the Church. Two bishops were honourable enough to leave; others, however said they would repent and accept the orthodox view. Whether they were genuine or not at the time is hard to say; in any case within a few years they were actively promoting Arianism again. A creed was proclaimed by the council, declaring the key doctrines of Arianism to be anathema, and set to be proclaimed in all Churches in perpetuity so they would not fall into the same error. That didn't quite happen: the creed was amended on two occasions, firstly at a later Church council in Constantinople, and secondly, and more controversially, at a local council in Spain. But the first two thirds of that creed are still recited (albeit translated) in Churches to this day.
The Alexandrians returned to Egypt, confident in their vindication. Alexander died a few years later, and was replaced by Athanasius. However, one of the 'repentant' Arians, Eusebius Bishop of Nicomedia, became increasingly influential and powerful in Asia Minor and the neighbouring parts of Greece. He was close to the imperial family, and had the ear of the Emperor. In 338, he was appointed as Bishop of the Imperial city of Constantinople. He baptised Constantine, and taught Constantine's sons and successors. Imperial troops and violent mobs were brought in to remove orthodox Bishops from their posts. Force had been used to settle an inter-Christian dispute for the first time (though sadly not the last, and even more sadly the orthodox would return the favour when they regained the upper hand). The net result of this was a persecution more cruel, though less severe, than anything the Romans had inflicted, and the greatest internal crisis the Church has ever faced. The orthodox, led by Athanasius, won the intellectual battle, and, after a change of heart in the imperial court, were able to win the political battle as well. By the time of Augustine, Arianism was defeated, but not yet destroyed.
Arianism was a response to the problem of the Trinity (although technically in its original form it only concerned the relationship between Jesus and the Father). The problem can be summarised by considering the following three propositions:
- The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all equally God.
- There is one God, of a single, simple, substance.
- The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all distinct from each other.
Each of these are required by the plain reading of scripture, and each necessary for the internal consistency of other aspects of Christian doctrine. At first sight, however, they appear to be contradictory. As always, we cannot be content with a superficial reading, but need to work into the finer details. When we do so, there is an obvious solution to the dilemma. We ask ourselves 'What is meant by unity and distinction? Unity in what respect? Distinct in what respect?' In asking the question, we acknowledge that there are several different ways in which things can be united or distinct from each other. The Church can be united in doctrine and disunited in its organisation, or disunited in doctrine and yet held together in one organisation. Whether the Church is united or not depends on what you mean by 'united'. When a congregation commissions a missionary to its local community, they are united in the sense that they remain part of the same body of believers, but distinct since the missionary is sent out while the congregation does the sending.
With regards to God, all pictures are, in some sense, misleading. The reason is straightforward: our pictures are conditioned by our imagination, and our imagination is conditioned by the world we observe, a world for all practical purposes governed by Newtonian mechanics. When we move outside Newtonian mechanics, our imagination becomes more of a hindrance than a help, and instead we have to use our intellect to study the issues abstractly. For example, with quantum physics, we are reliant on the abstract mathematical language to make progress. That might not mean the complete exclusion of images and diagrams (after all, Feynman diagrams are of considerable use in quantum physics), but such figures should serve the abstraction rather than be its master (Feynman diagrams are a representation of a mathematical series expansion; an abstraction, if you will, of an unrenormalised abstraction). As it is with God: He is so far beyond our everyday experience, that our imagination is as much a hindrance as a help. We have to rely on our intellect and abstract reasoning, and leave all mental images to one side.
So the solution to the dilemma is to say that the unity of God implied by the second premise can refer to one particular aspect, and the distinctiveness of the persons referenced in the third refers to a different aspect. The standard formulation is to say that the three Persons of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are united in substance but distinct in relationship. The definitions of substance, simple, person and relationship, and therefore the precise meaning of the Nicean creed, are taken from neo-Platonic classical philosophy. The words are defined in a similar way in either Plato's or Aristotle's system, so it comes to the same thing whichever of these two branches of classical philosophy you prefer. The underlying meaning, however, that the creeds represent, goes back to the New Testament and the early days of the Church. The fathers at the council used neo-Platonic language because it was the most precise system available to them which could be easily adapted to serve New Testament theology.
The heretics each try to solve the dilemma by denying one of its three legs. So, for example, the modalists and monarchians deny the distinctiveness of the three divine Persons. Some modalists might say that when we see God acting as creator we label Him as the Father, when we see God acting as Redeemer we label Him as the Son, and when we see God acting as Friend we label Him as the Holy Spirit. We just give different labels to God as encountered in different circumstances, but in reality it is the same being. Another analogy is the well-known tale of the blind men feeling an elephant. Both of these pictures, and the many more that modalists come up, with are incorrect because they deny that the distinctiveness of the three persons. For example, all three of them are involved in the acts of creation, redemption and friendship. Another picture that verges into modalism is to say that the Trinity is similar to the three phases of water.
Or one could deny the unity of God; this leads to the heresy of tri-theism. It was popular in varying outlying parts of Christendom; for example, it is likely that the Christians in Arabia at the time of Mohammed erred towards tri-theism, since it is that religion rather than genuine Christianity that the Koran attacks. It is easy to see how Mohammed, intelligent but not well educated, could make the mistake. However, tri-theism never gained much ground in the centres of early Christianity, whether the Roman Empire, Persian Empire, the Caucasus, India or Ethiopia. More common is the heresy which denies the simplicity of God, that is states that God is composed of separable parts. One picture along these lines would be the various different organs of the human body; another the three Persons being members of a committee. God's immutability (that He does not change in time, and is constant in space and any other way) is clearly taught in the Bible, necessary to the Christian life (Christianity is based around a trust that God will keep his promises, and that trust is built on God's unchanging nature); and divine simplicity is a logical inference of divine timelessness, universality and unity.
The third heretical option is to deny that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all equally God. There are various different ways of doing this. Firstly one could say that Jesus was just a good and wise man, perhaps just a prophet or teacher. If this was the case, Jesus would certainly not be able to play the role that He does play in Christian salvation: He could not be a saviour, because He would be just in need of salvation as anyone else. Then there are those who say that Jesus was born a normal man, but adopted as a divine son, or born a normal man, but had particular insight into a spark of divinity within all of us. Again, both of these ultimately and obviously imply that the cross and resurrection would be unable to accomplish what Christians claim they did accomplish (Athanasius' On the Incarnation is a good introduction to why this is the case). The early church consistently held to Jesus' divinity. This was not in dispute from the earliest days. Jesus was worshipped as God in the earliest passages of the New Testament, and (by implication) the oral teachings which the various epistles of Paul and the other apostolic writers presupposed. This is significant, because in Judaism, which Christianity arose from, such a thought is unthinkable blasphemy, which means that it would not emerge as a natural evolution of Judaism. Nor did it arise from a pagan influence, since firstly the early Christians, like the Jews, kept a firm distance from outside influence (Greek philosophy first became incorporated as a means to explain Christian theology out a hundred years after Christ, but the doctrine of the incarnation was present from the first generation of Christians, who were Jewish), and secondly because the Greek ideas of heroes being sons of gods has only one point of similarity with the Christian concept of Jesus as the Son of God: the words used to describe the concept. There is no other point of resemblance between Christianity and the Greek myths, once we go down into the details. Nor would a combination of pagan and Jewish beliefs lead to the orthodox conception: its natural fruit would be something similar to Arianism.
Arianism is slightly more subtle than the other ways in which people have denied Jesus' divinity. It agrees with orthodox Christianity that Jesus is both fully human and fully supernatural, but instead of making Him a divine figure taking up humanity into Himself, it makes Jesus an angelic figure taking on human form. The idea is that God creates Jesus as sort of a super angel, and then God and Jesus acting together create everything else. While Jesus originates from God, there was, in this doctrine, a time when Jesus was not and Jesus and the Father are of only similar substance rather than of one substance. This provides a clear solution to the problem of the Trinity, since it affirms the unity of God and the uniqueness of Jesus, and does not so violently contradict what the earliest Christians believed about Jesus. But it is still not good enough: it requires certain passages of the New Testament to be interpreted beyond the bounds of validity allowed by the literary context, and it is still not sufficient to make the theology of salvation coherent. It does a better job than adoptionism, and since it is easier than the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity is superficially appealing, but it is not good enough.
So should we describe Arians as non-Christian, or merely as heretical Christians? They are further from orthodox Christianity than the Pelagians, because they attack the very heart of Christianity, namely the Person of Jesus. When an Arian says that they will be saved from their sins by repenting and trusting in the promises of God mediated through the work and life of the Lord Jesus and the sacraments of baptism and Lord's supper (the simplest expression of Christianity), it is not enough, because when an Arian uses the word 'Jesus' in that confession, they are referring to someone else.
But isn't that true for all of us? None of us have a perfect understanding of Jesus? This would be true if our conceptions of Jesus were perfectly precise; but nobody would admit this. There is a certain ambiguity in the evidence: ambiguity which is filled in through theological supposition, but remains nonetheless. If we are wise, we incorporate that ambiguity into our understanding. Instead of saying that Jesus is exactly this, we say that Jesus is that being who exists within these bounds. The point is that those who say that Jesus was merely a good teacher, or who was adopted into the divine life, or that he was some sort of angelic figure express those bounds in such a way that (if orthodox Christianity is correct) excludes the actual real Jesus. On the other hand, an orthodox Christian would include the real Jesus within their bounds of uncertainty. The less educated Christians will have large degrees of ambiguity, which is fine as long as they are not so unreasonably large that they include those religions contrary to Christianity, while the better educated will have less uncertainty, which as long as they do not stray into error is also fine.
Arianism incorporates the idea of a demiurge, probably inspired by Plato's writings, into Christianity. It requires ignoring those passages of the New Testament which give Jesus Godhood. These passages contain some of our earliest Christian writings (Philippians 2:6; Colossians 1:19), direct testimony from Jesus' closest disciple (John 1:1, John 10:30), as well as indirect testimony throughout the Gospels and New Testament (and even a few hints in the Old Testament), and frequent reference from the earliest post-apostolic Christian writers. The belief in Jesus' divinity was there from the beginning of the faith, and it is not something which could be added onto the religion later. People simply would not accept it if it contradicted what they first learned about the faith. People accepted Christianity because they believed that the apostle's teaching was true; they were urged not to accept any doctrine contrary to what they first received; and they would not remain silent if the teaching suddenly changed in such a dramatic way (there is a huge difference between Jesus being a good man or a mighty prophet, which to an audience sympathetic to Judaism is not controversial at all, and Jesus being God, which would be hugely controversial were it not seen as being true). But even so, I would class Arius as a heretic rather than a non-Christian. Arianism was born from an attempt to solve one of Christianity's hardest problems. I am sure that Arius himself believed himself to be consistent with the tradition he received. He, or his teachers, were simply mistaken about that tradition.
Finally, I want to mention the Gnostics. There was actually no single sect of Gnosticism, but rather numerous diverse schools with certain similarities. Gnosticism first emerged in ancient Persia, a few hundred years before the birth of Christ, but it was a syncretic religion, absorbing ideas from different cultures and adding them to its system. There were a few ideas common to all of these streams, and these can be used to define a Gnostic belief.
- God created various angelic figures first of all (the Aeons), and from these angels another being, the Demiurge, came into being. While God and the angels are good, the Demiurge is evil.
- The Demiurge created the material world, which is consequently evil.
- Mankind, however, was implanted with a spiritual soul (which is therefore good) by either God or the angels.
- Salvation is achieved by releasing the soul from the influence and corruption of our evil bodies. This can be done through understanding secret knowledge, passed down from either teachers who were able to overcome their material limitations and catch a glimpse of the Aeons, or passed down from Aeons who came to this world by putting on the illusion of human flesh.
At some point, several Gnostic sects came into contact with Christianity, and (as the Gnostics always did) tried to absorb some aspects of Christianity into their beliefs. These schools identified Jesus and the Holy Spirit as two of the Aeons, and adapted their secret teachings and rituals to mimic those of Christianity. They distinguished between the God of the Jewish Testament, who they saw as being the evil Demiurge, from the Father of the New Testament, who they saw as the genuine God.
When this Christian-influenced form of Gnosticism emerged is less clear. It was certainly well in place by the mid-second century; the early Christian historians (from the mid-second century) trace its origins to the figure of Simon Magus, a Samaritan who encountered Peter and John a few years after the resurrection. However, very little Christian literature has survived from the late first and second century. That literature existed, because it is cited and used by later writers whose works have been preserved, but, aside from the New Testament, only writings from about six or seven of these early Christians survived the ravages of time, and of these we only have little of their literary output. This is not unique to early Christian literature. The works of almost every Greek and Roman author, including some major and influential writers, is lost to us, or has only survived in a very fragmentary form. Papyrus and parchment rot, and unless numerous copies were made (a difficult and expensive process, and impossible after the classical educational system collapsed after the barbarian invasions in the West and Islamic invasions in the East), writings would need to be exceptionally lucky to survive the more than thousand years from the fall of Rome to the invention of the printing press. There is thus little contemporary evidence of the emergence of Christian Gnosticism, and the late second and third century legends are disputed. We are forced to piece together what we can from the accounts of late second century and third century Christian writers, and our knowledge of non-Christian Gnosticism.
These particular Gnostics called themselves Christian. The major schools of the branches of Gnosticism we are interested in were founded by people who came out of the Church, and probably tried to influence members of their own congregations before being excommunicated. They were regarded by some pagans as being a Christian sect. But that they called themselves Christian does not make it so. Of the beliefs I mentioned, all are opposite of the Christian world-view; they originated from sources outside Christian tradition. Gnosticism contains a Christian veneer bolted onto a Persian religious perspective. It is not merely a misinterpretation of the Christian rule of faith, but is based on something alien to it. The Old Testament describes the same God of love as the New Testament. One only has to glance through the prophets to see this: God continually pleads for the people of Israel to accept the discipline, get their lives back in order, and then He will restore them and the relationship with Him. To be love someone is to steer the middle course between over-indulgence and tolerance of failure, and to be too cruel in discipline. In the Old Testament, God takes that path, just as in the New He displays His love through self-sacrifice. The material world in Christianity is not evil but something good corrupted; the solution is not to destroy it, but to restore it, as in the Christian doctrine of the bodily resurrection. And the message of salvation is not to be found in secret knowledge, but is openly declared in public witness, and salvation in Christianity is achieved through trust, and only evidence-based knowledge in as much as it is needed for and contributes to that trust. Thus unquestionably, the Gnostics were not heretical Christians but went beyond the bounds of Christianity.
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