Wednesday, April 9, 2014

What do early schisms in the church have to do with us?

The following is a paper I wrote for my masters class on church history, plus a short relection that didn't fit in the page limit.

In its first few centuries after the conversion of Constantine (and even before), the Christian church faced some of its defining theological struggles. By "defining" I mean both that these struggles served as models for how future Christian leaders could contend for the faith, and that they resulted in several points of doctrine that we consider just as important and foundational as any in Scripture. My text puts it this way: "Those whom the rest of the church eventually rejected as heretics and schismatics left their mark in the theology that was developed in order to refute them."


One of the first such theological battles of this era was the Donatist controversy. This began even before the conversion of Constantine as the question came up again over what to do with the "lapsed", those who renounced their faith under Diocletian's persecutions, or traditores, those who handed over sacred writings to destruction. A divide arose between those who favored more lenient restrictions on readmitting them and the rigorists who demanded stricter measures. This dispute came to a head in Carthage when the new bishop, Caecilian, was consecrated by an alleged traditore. The rigorists considered this consecration invalid and appointed their own bishop, Majorinus, succeeded after his death by Donatus. The presence of two rival bishops in Carthage became a flashpoint for controversy on the issue of the lapsed, and the affair came to be known as Donatism.

What was at stake was much more than practical matters of church government. The conflict between moderate and rigorist Christians was underlaid by questions about forgiveness and the true nature of the church. How were Christians who had compromised their faith but wanted to be readmitted to be treated? Are sacraments administered by a traditore valid? More fundamentally, can someone who appears to have lost his salvation be saved again? And is the holiness of the church grounded on that of its members, or of the Lord and the church offices He instituted? There was also a social element to the controversy; the rigorists tended to live outside major cities, and be poorer and less accepting of the "Romanization" of the church, which they saw as worldly corruption. The Donatist issue was the spark they needed to express their discontent with the direction the church was going, and break away.

The council of Nicea helped resolve this issue, establishing procedures for the readmission of the lapsed, after which they could presumably administer valid sacraments. The proponents of the majority view argued that if the validity of sacraments was based on the holiness of the one administering them, no one could even be sure of his own baptism; they were based on God's holiness, not ours. Augustine would later help to solidify the validity of sacraments performed by an unworthy bishop in his writings.


A contemporaneous, and much larger, controversy in the church was Arianism. This was the teaching that Jesus, the divine Logos (Word), was not equally divine or coeternal with the Father, but was the foremost of the created beings under Him. This teaching originated from Arius, an elder in the city of Alexandria, who like others was seeking to reconcile Christian theology and classical philosophy by interposing Jesus as the Word of God who mediates between an immutable, invisible Supreme Being (the Father) and mutable, material humanity. He was strongly opposed by Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria, who claimed Arius was denying Jesus' divinity and the worship of Him that had been practiced for centuries; Arius replied that Alexander's assertion of Jesus' divinity was a denial of monotheism and that Jesus' perfect obedience to God was drained of its meaning if He was Himself God. Both parties had plenty of biblical proof-texts to support their positions.

This might have been a local controversy if Arius had not been highly popular and influential. Soon he had gathered many allies to his position and the Arian controversy had spread through the empire. It was still dividing the church when Constantine converted and Christianity became accepted in the empire. Seeking to end this, Constantine called the first ecumenical council of the church at Nicea in 325, the first such gathering of Christians from all over the known world. Its main purpose was to settle the Arian controversy. Alexander and Athanasius were the main proponents of what would become known as Nicene Christianity; Arius, not being a bishop, was represented by Eusebius of Nicomedia. When Eusebius presented Arius' views, they were received with scorn and quickly condemned by the council. The council wrote the Nicene Creed as an expression of orthodox Christianity that explicitly excluded Arianism; Arius was condemned and deposed (and banished from Alexandria by Constantine). Due to his political abilities, Eusebius was eventually able to change Constantine's mind on the matter and Arianism, though condemned, would stick around for several centuries.


The three following controversies mostly concerned the eastern branch of the church. Apollinaris, the bishop of Laodicea, was a defender of the Nicene formula of Christianity. In his eagerness to defend Jesus' divinity and to explain how He, though a man, could also be coeternal and co-divine with the Father, he began teaching that Jesus' human mind was replaced by the divine Logos. This was one form of monophysitism, the belief that Jesus only had one nature (even if He also had a physical body). Unfortunately for him, his views were judged to be heretical by several local synods before the Council of Constantinople condemned him as a heretic in 381. The council also re-asserted its condemnation of Arianism (which was still a threat to orthodox Christianity) and augmented the Nicene Creed with a description of the divinity of the Holy Spirit.


The next controversy concerned Nestorius, then the patriarch of Constantinople. In his understanding of Christ's dual nature, he was concerned that Jesus' divinity not override His humanity in any way, so that He could no longer identify meaningfully with us as human. So he drew a sharp distinction between them, saying that Christ had "two natures and two persons" and that Mary should not be called theotokos ("bearer of God") but Christotokos ("bearer of Christ"). He and John of Antioch held this view and were opposed by Cyril of Alexandria. In the ensuing Council of Ephesus, Nestorius was declared a heretic and the title of Mary as theotokos was affirmed in no uncertain terms. This council contributed to the growing acrimony between the Antiochene school of theology, which like Nestorius sought to preserve Jesus' human nature distinctly, and the Alexandrian school, which emphasized His divinity even at the neglect of His humanity.


Then the pendulum swung back the other way when Eutyches, a monk in Constantinople, began teaching that Christ's two natures were united into one new nature, which was "of one substance" (homoousios) with the Father but no longer with us. This amounted to saying that Jesus had only a divine nature and was no longer truly human. Though Patriarch Dioscorus of Alexandria supported him, Patriarch Flavian of Constantinople saw this teaching as close to docetism. The resulting Council of Ephesus in 449 was subject to political manipulation by Dioscorus, who ensured that it would rule in his favor, and which handled Flavian so roughly that he later died. Dioscorus also disallowed a letter from Pope Leo, which expressed a position of compromise largely from Tertullian's views, from being read. This council increased the tension between the rival schools of theology even further.

Once Marcian became emperor, he called for a new council, to be held in Chalcedon in 451. This council condemned the "Robber Synod" of 449 and finally read Leo's letter, with which most of the bishops in attendance agreed, saying it described their beliefs. Based on this, the council wrote a definition (not a creed) that would set the standard limits for Christology for the future. Eutyches and Dioscorus were condemned, but some heretical factions still clinging to Nestorianism or monophysitism broke off in the east.


As I studied these controversies in their historical context, not just as abstract contentions over the finer points of Christology, one thing that stood out to me was how none of these "false teachers" seemed like they were "wolves among sheep" intentionally trying to lead people away from orthodox Christianity, as we usually think of them. The Donatists were expressing legitimate concerns about the direction the church was taking; Arius was looking for dialogue between Christianity and classical philosophy. Nestorius was concerned about Jesus' humanity and divinity being blurred together; the monophysite churches were contrastingly concerned about them being so separated as to render the Incarnation meaningless. Apollinaris and Eutyches seem to have arrived at their views in response to earlier heresy, in a desire to refute it. The controversies of the 4th and 5th centuries were like a pendulum swinging farther and farther away from equilibrium.
What I take from this, at least, is the danger of what I will define as "negative theology": that is, "doing theology" not in order to seek what is true, but to refute or exclude what you know cannot be true. So instead of being drawn towards something (hopefully God), you are repulsed away from something else. As I think the above examples show, when this is the case you are likely to proceed straight into an opposite extreme that is at least as bad, and make some enemies in the process. Also notice how much more precise and philosophical the Chalcedonian definition is than anything in the Bible, even John or Romans, due to the necessity of navigating safely between the Alexandrian and Antiochene schools of thought. Of course I agree with it, but if you make it your new starting point for Christology, you are likely to go about the task with quite a different focus than someone who has only the "mere Incarnation". What is important is recognizing not what the definition is against (Arianism, Apollinarianism, Nestorianism, Eutychianism...) but what it is for—the simultaneous affirmation of Christ's total divinity and humanity, in light of repeated challenges to one or the other—and to continue affirming those same things.

What about you, reader? (Yes, I'm asking a discussion question) Do you think Christians sometimes think about theology not in terms of seeking what is true, but of denying what is not true? Your responses may have a major effect on the next post I'm writing about the gospel!

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