Athanasius: On the Incarnation (Part 2)

In my prior post about Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, I wrote about the first two sections of the work, according to the outline I provided there.  In today’s post I’ll discuss the last three major sections — a couple of noteworthy items from each section.

Regarding Christ’s Death and Resurrection

a8a76d2521e47fc0b4f7e516f2a525d5In the prior post I noted how Athanasius argues for Christ’s uniqueness as God-become-human.  In chs. 20-32, we see more of the same.  He starts out with what sounds like a preacher’s refrain: “It was not for another” to bring us to incorruptibility, to recreate us in God’s image, to make mortals to be immortal, and to teach us the truth about God.  Then, in ch. 22, he says that Jesus was, in a way, uniquely qualified to conquer death, since he was actually “the Life” (cf. John 14:6) and did not have death in him.  (Again, this does raise questions about how fully Jesus had become human, right?)

A second interesting feature of this section is when Athanasius takes up some questions that folks may have — and these seem to be honest questions from seekers, not necessarily objections from opponents (as he’ll do in the next two sections — although see ch. 25).  So, if someone asks why Jesus couldn’t just have died in a private place rather than in the public, ignominious crucifixion, Athanasius says that people would have said he just died from the “normal” weakness of human flesh (ch. 21).  Should he have fled from the Jews in order to preserve his immortal body?  No — because he had to publicly demonstrate his conquering death so all would know that it had been conquered (ch. 22).  Wasn’t there just any other way than the shameful cross?  No — he had to take a curse upon him to redeem us from the curse that came in the garden (ch. 25).  Why did he wait until the third day to be resurrected?  Because if it had been immediate, people would have said he hadn’t really died, and if it had been a month later, people would have forgotten some of the things that he had said (ch. 26).  Some good questions, right?

In a similar vein, one of the things I really appreciate about this text is that it’s pretty realistic about human nature.  Besides the questions that he asks in this section — legit questions! — we also get more imagined results to some of the “what ifs” of the Gospels?  We especially see this in ch. 23, where he says things like…

  • If Jesus had just hidden his dead body away and then reappeared, saying he’d been raised from the dead, then no one would have believed him, AND they would have trusted him even less when he talked about the resurrection!
  • If the disciples hadn’t actually seen Jesus die, then there’s no way they would have been as bold to say that he had been raised from the dead.
  • If the Jewish leaders hadn’t actually seen Jesus die, then it would have been even easier for them to explain his supposed resurrection away.

Concerning Objections from “the Jews”

Where section 3 has some pretty direct relevance for me in my context — we have a number of people in my part of the world who question the Christian narrative, the stories of Scripture, and especially the centrality of Jesus in life — section 4 is not as much so.  The reason is that this part concerns objections that (real or imagined) Jews of Athanasius’ time made against the Christian claims concerning Jesus.  So, if you (the reader) do live in a place where there are a number of Jews, and if you happen to be involved in conversations about religion, then Athanasius’s text might be helpful.

The most noteworthy part of this section (starting at ch. 33), in my mind, is that we have two different kinds of testimonies that are made.  First, we get some repetition of the texts that are in the New Testament, in places like Matthew’s Gospel or the book of Acts.  Examples of this type especially come from the book of Isaiah, including Isa. 7:14 about a virgin conceiving a child (Matthew 1), the famous “Servant Song” in Isa. 52-53 (Acts 8), and Isa. 65:1-2 about God’s reaching out to a “disobedient and rebellious people” (Romans 10).

However, there are also other passages that don’t appear in the New Testament, like Deuteronomy 28:66, which says, “You will see your life hanging before your eyes, and you will not believe” (reflecting the Septuagint text more than the Hebrew).  In ch. 35 of his text, Athanasius rather naturally connects “life” with Jesus, and the idea of “hanging” with “hanging on the cross, thus making the text a prophecy of Moses against the Jews who would reject Jesus.  In fact, there are a number of these kinds of texts — and the fact that several of them are also quoted in other early Christian writings makes us think that there must have been some common body of texts that writers knew and could draw from for their purposes.  In fact, this is the 100th anniversary of the publishing of Rendel Harris’s Testimonies (also available for free in GoogleBooks), which was dedicated to the question of whether there was even a text that was known, copied, and consulted by the church fathers, but is now lost to history.

Concerning Objections from “the Greeks”

The last portion of the text is concerning with refuting objections that Gentiles (“Greeks”) may make.  For example, Athanasius returns to engagement with Greek philosophers (as he did early on, in ch. 2.  He says in chs. 41-42 that some philosophers teach that the cosmos has a body (see this discussion of Stoic metaphysics) but also that God’s Logos (a generic term for a mediating presence between God and humanity) also pervades the universe.  If the Logos can be in a cosmos with a body, he asks, why can it not be in a human body?  Then, in ch. 43, he refers to Plato’s understanding of the cosmos’s slipping into corruptibility (perhaps from Plutarch’s Moralia) to argue that it is not unreasonable to think that God saw the same in human beings, especially since in both narratives God steps in to fix the problem!

he-the-resurrection-2003Later in this section, starting in ch. 46, he returns to the problem of idolatry that he dealt with in his Against the Heathens.  Here, he argues from common experience: what’s the deal that there are so many different gods, worshiped in so many different places — especially since people tend to say that gods only have authority in local places?  Doesn’t that mean they are weak?  In fact, it means they are weak demons (see the last post) who are deceiving people, and Jesus, the Truth, comes to drive away their deceits.  And as a result, “by means of simple words and by means of humans not wise in speech” (ch. 47), he was able to point folks toward resurrection and immortality!

Toward the end, Athanasius continues his argument from experience and turns it to exhortation for his Christian readers.  First, he notes (to the Greeks) that none of their kings, heroes, or rulers ever did some of the things Jesus did — like making a body for himself from a virgin alone (ch. 49), or converting human beings from all over the world from their idols (ch. 50), or showed and taught that virginity is both good and possible for humans (ch. 51), or united in peace people who legitimately hated each other (ch. 52), or despoiled the worship of the idols and the work of the magicians (ch. 53)?  Implied answer: no one.  And, as he closes, he notes that Christians’ lives can also be exemplary, because it is not enough simply to learn about Jesus — one must live his ways as well.  I will close with Athanasius’s own words from ch. 57:

“…[I]n addition to the study and knowledge of the scriptures, there is needed a good life and a pure soul and the virtue which is according to Christ, so that the mind, guided by it, may be able to attain and comprehend what it desires, as far as it is possible for human nature to learn about the God Word [i.e., Jesus]”

Image credits: because Athanasius’s text comes from and reflects a very different culture, I’ve decided to use art from a different culture — the amazing He Qi from China.  His crucifixion is from www.pinterest.com/pastorpathiggin/beautiful-art/; his Nativity painting is from sacraparental.files.wordpress.com; and his resurrection is from puthudoznika.blogspot.com/.

Suggested next click: Reading Group home page

Athanasius: On the Incarnation (Part 1)

Welcome back to the CHEF!  The second short text for the beginning of summer is also by Athanasius of Alexandria — it’s his famous doctrinal text On the Incarnation.  It was written in the early fourth century, probably before the Council of Nicaea in 325, since it does not refer explicitly to the Arian controversy that led up to and followed that council.  That means that it was written before Athanasius was the bishop of Alexandria.  In fact, a former teacher of mine called it the equivalent of a master’s thesis — doing an excellent job of reviewing the problem and offering some theological suggestions!  The title of the work refers to Jesus’s earthly life — his becoming human as a baby, his bodily death on the cross, and his bodily resurrection.  I’ll explain more and offer some thoughts below, but suffice it to say that this text has been important enough that C. S. Lewis actually wrote the preface for a 1944 translation of the work.  In fact, if you need an online copy of Athanasius’s text, you can find it at this link, while you find the version I’m using on Amazon at this link.

Outline of the Text

One thing that is often helpful when beginning a new text is to have a sense of how it’s organized.  We know this intuitively from movies, and it helps us know what’s going to happen.  Romantic comedies typically have a meet-cute, followed by tension, followed by a happy ending.  Action movies often have a slow build, getting more and more exciting, all the way to a gigantic climax (often followed by a brief romantic encounter).  Here I’m following the outline of On the Incarnation provided by John Behr, who wrote the introduction and translation that I’m using.  He says that we can think of it in five major parts:

  • After the introduction, Athanasius takes up a “divine dilemma”: what should God have done in light of humans’ disobedience in the garden? (Chs. 1-10)
  • Then, he takes up a second problem: since our desires for knowledge have shifted from heavenly things to earthly things, how can God rightly get our attention?  (Chs. 11-19)
  • Part 3 is focused on Jesus’s death on a cross — why on a cross and not some other way — and his resurrection in the body, which is witnessed by Christians’ lack of fear in the face of earthly death.  (Chs. 20-32)
  • Then, he considers objections that Jews might raise to this account of the incarnation, based on their own Bible (what Christians call the “Old Testament”).  (Chs. 33-40)
  • Finally, before a brief closing, he considers objections that Gentiles (that is, “Greeks” not yet in Christ) raise based on what they see in the creation and in the effects of Christ’s death.  (Chs. 41-57)

On the Garden and the Incarnation

Athanasius starts by referring to a past work of his, the one called by its Latin name Contra Gentes or (commonly) in English translation as Against the Heathens or Against the Gentiles.  The present text continues what he began there, by shifting from his discussion of idolatry to focusing on Jesus’s birth, death, and resurrection in the flesh.  The most interesting problem in  Brick Testament Adam and Evethis section, in my mind, concerns what Athanasius thinks God could or should have done once the first humans disobeyed his commandment in the garden.  Athanasius scolds the first humans a bit by saying that it was absurd to have thought that God wouldn’t actually carry out what he said about death coming as a consequence of eating the fruit.  In fact, though, he defends God’s actions as being both right and proper.  It was right (or “just”) for God to condemn them to death, since God had given a rule, and rule-breaking brings consequences.  But that said, it was proper for God to offer them a way to avoid destruction, since the workmanship of God is necessarily good and should be seen as such.  In other words, God’s actions were right insofar as God is the lawgiver, and they were proper insofar as God is good.

In fact, it is God’s goodness that strikes me as another important theme in this portion of the text.  From the beginning of this account, Athanasius talks about how good God has been to human beings.  In chs. 3-5 he says that, by our created and animal nature, we are essentially corruptible and irrational; however, by God’s free gift, we were made both incorruptible (at the beginning) and rational, both of which allow us to participate in relationship with God.  Second, in ch. 7, we see the beginning of a theme that appears throughout out the book: that God gives second chances.  Athanasius depicts God as a re-newer, a re-creator, a re-storer — in other words, one who is willing to do things again for our sakes.  As he says there, “It was his once more … to bring the corruptible to incorruptibility.”  This is a theme that Cyril of Alexandria, his successor a century later, would also pick up.  Finally, in ch. 9, we begin to get to the heart of the text: because there was no other way for humans’ corruptibility to be undone, God the Word is willing to become human for our sakes.  In an argument somewhat reminiscent of Anselm of Canterbury, in his 12th-century text Why Did God Become Human?, Athanasius says that a body had to die to fulfill the requirements of death, but that only God could actually take the death of everyone at once.

On the Problem of Humanity’s Knowledge

As I noted above, ch. 11 starts a new section devoted to the problem of human beings’ focus on earthly things rather than heavenly ones.  If you’re thinking that this sounds like Romans 1, then you’re right: Athanasius quotes it and refers to it often in this text.  Here we again see a God who is merciful and gracious, in this case accounting for the weaknesses of human beings.  For example, in ch. 12, he describes all the different ways that God has manifested Godself to humans: in ourselves, creation (again, Rom. 1), in the law, in the prophets, etc.  Then, in ch. 15, he notes the ways that the very things we are tempted to worship and adore can speak to us of God: the elements of creation, human beings (Christ-the-incarnate is the greatest of all humans), other supernatural beings (the demons, whom Athanasius sees as the actual beings lying behind the Greek and Roman gods, actually confess Christ in the Gospels), and dead heroes of the past (since Christ overcame death).  Athanasius seems at pains to say that, in truth, we have no reason not to worship God, since all of creation points us to God in Christ.

Second, and I’ll close here for now, On the Incarnation provides a good example of a theological text that speaks to the issues of its own day without anticipating the problems of the future.  In baby jesus walking on waterch. 17, Athanasius describes the amazing act of incarnation: that God-in-Christ used the human body like a tool, “not bound to the body” but rather “wielding it.”  His point is clearly to magnify God’s power and Christ’s uniqueness, but there is an unintended consequence: that it can seem as though Christ’s human body is merely a tool.  The aforementioned Cyril would be horrified at this notion, since it was important in his time to emphasize the inseparable unity between the humanity and divinity of Christ.  But Athanasius also wants to show that Christ’s divinity “sanctified the body,” and that “by being in the body” he was not defiled — in other words, that humanity itself came back in the direction of perfection because of Christ’s work in becoming incarnate.  He doesn’t mean to sound like Christ may not be fully human — one wonders if this is part of what set the table for the later problem of Apollinarianism — but there we are!

Coming up next: the last three portions of the text!

Image credits: http://www.svspress.com/ (for the cover of the book), http://www.bricktestament.com (for the Adam and Eve image, edited by the blogger), and weknowmemes.com/2014/07/jesus-at-bath-time-comic/ (for the baby Jesus cartoon)

Suggested next click: On the Incarnation, Part 2

Athanasius: Life of Anthony (Part 2)

In the first post on Athanasius, I introduced the author a bit and began to talk about his famous work The Life of Anthony.  In today’s post I’ll finish my comments on this text.  (If you’re ahead, go ahead and start on Athanasius’s On the Incarnation — you can find an online translation at this link.

There are many important themes that come up in this text; if you have access to the translation of the Life of Anthony in the Classics of Western Spirituality series, then you can read the excellent introduction there, written by Robert C. Gregg.  If not, then I’ll offer some hopefully thought-provoking observations on the text.

Depicting Anthony

For quite a long time, people read this text in a generally straightforward way — that is, assuming that Athanasius is simply reporting the truth.  Now, with our modern sensibilities regarding literary criticism, we are aware that Athanasius is clearly crafting a portrait of Anthony for some kind of intentional ends.  Obviously, that does call some things into question — what parts can we actually assume are true? — but it also helps us see a little more about Athanasius and Anthony.

Two of the most intriguing aspects of Athanasius’s depiction are his portraits of Anthony as a wise man (not book-learnin’) and as a paragon of orthodoxy.  The former can be seen in places like sections 72-80, where Anthony outwits two “Greek philosophers” who came to test him.  (One is reminded here of the Gospel stories of Jewish leaders coming to put Jesus to a test.)  Athanasius clearly wants us to remember the early Christian leaders, who in places like Acts 4 are described as idiotes (or “uneducated”) people; the point is not to glorify them but rather the God who enables them to speak with such eloquence, just like Anthony does here.  The section closes with the philosophers “marveling at him” (like the leaders in Acts 4) and “acknowledging that they had benefited from him.”

The latter — that Anthony is depicted as unimpeachably orthodox — is a theme that Gregg describes well in his introduction.  You can see it clearly in places like sections 68 and 69, where Anthony as having nothing to do with one group who just happen to be Athanasius’s own theological opponents (the Arians), one group who were a historical problem in Egypt (the Meletians), and those general fourth-century bogeymen, the Manichaeans, urging them all to “change to right belief.”  Athanasius depicts him as welcoming guests (as is typical for him), but once he discerns that they are heretics, he runs them off, “for he held and taught that friendship and association with them led to injury and destruction of the soul.”  Of course, it is possible that Anthony would actually have rejected folks like this in exactly this way, but we can’t know that for sure.  What we can know is that Athanasius, the embattled church politician, is clearly trying to demonstrate that Anthony, the great holy man of Egypt, would have been on his side in the conflicts of the fourth century — not unlike politicians today seeking endorsements from famous pastors.

Classic Monastic Themes

It is not surprising that we also find some standard themes in Athanasius’s depiction of Anthony.  For example, his attitude toward personal property is one that is mirrored throughout the history of Christian monasticism; for centuries monks will struggle will the human tendency toward acquisitiveness.  But Anthony, in section 17 — and Athanasius, through the mouth of the blessed ascetic — says to us,

“Let none among us have even the yearning to possess.  For what benefit is there in possessing these things that we do not take with us?  Why not rather own those things that we are able to take away with us [that is, after death] — such things as prudence, justice, temperance, courage, understanding, love, concern for the poor, faith in Christ, freedom from anger, hospitality?  If we possess these, we shall discover them running before, preparing hospitality for us there in the land of the meek.

Second, we see the way that one person’s holiness attracts others to follow.  This aspect of Christianity is first visible in Paul’s writings, where we see him writing to the Philippians, holding up characters like Timothy and Epaphroditus as examples of self-giving love, or even himself as one who is pursuing Christ relentlessly.  In our text, Athanasius describes individuals wanting to imitate Anthony’s asceticism (sec. 14), and it actually becomes difficult for Anthony, since he really wants to pursue God in solitude.  In a later episode (sec. 46), Anthony goes to Alexandria to support those imprisoned in the persecution under Maximin — perhaps even to receive martyrdom himself — but he was spared.  Athanasius interprets this event as from the Lord, who was “protecting him to benefit us and others, so that he might be a teacher to many in the discipline that he had learned from the Scriptures.  For simply by seeing his conduct, many aspired to become imitators of his way of life.”

athletic-stain-glass-window

Third, Athanasius occasionally describes Anthony as an “athlete” — a descriptor that becomes classic in Christian literature about individuals pursuing ascetic lives.  The idea seems to come from 1 Corinthians 9, where Paul describes the spiritual life using an athletic analogy.  But it seems that Christians noticed the parallels between athletic training and Christian asceticism — denying oneself, having a special diet, etc. — and they began to talk about the monks as “spiritual athletes” or “athletes for God” (see section 12 for an example in the Life of Anthony).  Of course, you can probably anticipate the dangers — did that mean that the monks were sometimes excessively idolized, like modern athletes?  (Yes.)  Did that mean that sometimes people thought the monks were the real spiritual superstars, so that the “common people” weren’t that good spiritually?  (Yes.)  Did that cause problems for the church?  (Yes.)

Do Demons Have Bodies?

The last item I want to touch on — and just briefly — is an interesting feature of the text: Athanasius’ extensive reflections on the nature of demons.  Presumably, this topic comes up because of Anthony’s repeated encounters with them, but it also true that the third and fourth centuries witnessed quite a bit of discussion among Christian theologians about the nature of demons, especially their bodies.  (If you’re interested, you might check out this little monograph from my colleague Everett Ferguson.)

Athanasius’s comments on demons are focused in the middle of the text, starting in section 21.  In section 22 he reflects the traditional Christian mythology that demons are essentially fallen angels, and he says that their desire is to interfere with Christians, lest we ascend to the heaven from which they fell.  At the same time, in section 23, he says that “they are nothing” and need not be feared (perhaps echoing Old Testament ideas about idols, as in Isaiah 44).  But, as he goes on to say, they are treacherous and can take on many alluring forms to pull us away from God.  In section 31, he says that they even “pretend to prophesy,” but that this is actually because their bodies are “thinner” and thus allow them to move faster than we do; as a result, they can “prophesy” that someone is coming to see Anthony, when really they just saw him/her coming up the road and sped to the hermit’s cell to inform him.  Ultimately, Athanasius encourages his readers to “fearlessness against them,” because really they are “cowardly, always expectant of the fire that has been prepared for them” (secs. 42-43).

That’s it for Anthony, friends!  Feel free to comment below, and I’ll be back next week with the first of two posts on Athanasius’s classic On the Incarnation.

Image credits: www.christianbook.com and isscd.org

Suggested next click: Reading Group home page

Justin Martyr: Introduction

Our first group read for 2016 consists of Justin Martyr’s First Apology and his Dialogue with Trypho.  Justin was likely born around the year 100 CE/AD, and according to the First Apology, he was from the Roman town of Flavia Neapolis (now called “Nablus“) in the part of the Holy Land now known as the “West Bank,” between Jerusalem and Nazareth.  According to his own words, he was reasonably well-educated as a child, and as an adult, he began to pursue various forms of philosophy.  (Note: I’ll have more to say about Justin’s philosophical wanderings when we come to the Dialogue with Trypho.)  His writings show that he was well-versed in the Scriptures and also aware of at least some of the “pop-culture” works of his day.  Tradition from shortly after his life tells us that he was “turned in” to the civil authorities by a philosopher with whom he had disputed, and that he was tried and beheaded with other Christians in the mid-160s, thus winning the “martyr’s crown” depicted in the icon above.  In other words, the “Martyr” in his name is a title he is given, not an unfortunate last name.

It is probably not surprising to you that not many Christian writings survive from the second century of our history.  This sparseness is due partly, of course, to its distance in time, but also because there simply weren’t that many Christians yet.  Christianity was growing, to be sure, but it wasn’t big yet, and it certainly wasn’t dominant.  (By the way, if you want to know more about Christianity’s growth, especially from a sociological point of view, check out Rodney Stark’s 1997 book The Rise of Christianity.)  However, we do have a few writings, and Justin’s are among the most prominent.  In them we see things like the following:

  • descriptions of early Christian worship
  • a Christian explicitly attempting to talk to the cultural elites of his day
  • a narrative of philosophical exploration that culminates with Christianity
  • some ways that early Christians read Scripture, especially the “Old Testament”

In other words, if you’re interested in early Christianity, Justin’s writings have a lot to show you!

My plan for Justin is as follows: I’ll have one or two posts dedicated to the First Apology, and then two or three on the longer Dialogue with Trypho.  I’m going to be reading the translation by Thomas B. Falls, published originally in New York by Christian Heritage, Inc., as part of the series called The Fathers of the Church.  If you want an online text, you can find older translations by Marcus Dods and George Reith of the First Apology at this link and the Dialogue with Trypho at this link.

One last note: in the introductory post I’ll create each month, I’ll list a few recent books on the author, just in case you find yourself intrigued and wanting to read more.  I haven’t read these myself, and so I can’t vouch for them in any way.  But they are the most recent books on the topic in question, and so you might find them useful.  Here are some on Justin:

Image credits: communio.stblogs.org and www.azquotes.com

Suggested next click: Justin’s First Apology

Noll, Ch. 3: The Council of Chalcedon (451 CE)

Chapter 3 continues on from chapter 2, in discussing the Council of Chalcedon of 451. In fact, the meeting in Chalcedon was the fourth of the so-called “ecumenical councils” of the early church, after Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), and Ephesus (431). The two in the 300s were really devoted to the question of how to talk rightly about the relationship between the Son and the Father (or, in common parlance, “Jesus and God”). The two councils of the 400s dealt with the question of how to understand the relationship of Jesus’s humanity and his divinity – the “human-ness” and the “god-ness” of Jesus.

You may already have had some questions about these matters, but I found the chart on p. 63 to be very helpful. I’d use it as a resource if I were teaching this book. A couple of other notes on the chapter:

  • Noll is right to emphasize on page 65 the growing importance of Mary for Christianity. People have different theories about why people at this time might have been looking for other intercessors between themselves and God. My own theory has to do with the growth in the size of the church buildings and the ceremony of the Christian liturgy (worship rituals). Both of these, as they grow, can conspire to make Christians feel very small and insignificant; as Jesus is exalted and is physically far away (for example, as the bread and wine on the altar at the front of a very big church), then it makes sense that people would feel distanced from him. And as a result, they might feel the need for a new mediator.
  • He is also right that there were political conflicts between the various patriarchates (p. 70). Constantinople and Alexandria seem to have had a particular rivalry. If you want to see another manifestation of this, Google “John Chrysostom Synod of the Oak,” and you’ll get to read about an event decades before, when Cyril of Alexandria’s uncle was the Patriarch in Egypt, and that rivalry again reared its ugly head.
  • On p. 71, in the section about the council’s “Theological Significance,” Noll says that the “Definition” of Chalcedon sought to find a balance between various extremes in expressing the identity of Jesus. As a teacher and now colleague of mine once said, this balance-seeking is an important task in Christian theology; in fact, most “heresies” arise from well-intentioned overemphasis on one side of an argument that needs balance.
  • I had not thought about the terminology that was settled upon at Chalcedon as an example of cultural “translation” from Christianity’s originally Jewish world into its Greco-Roman surroundings. There are all kinds of ways we still do this in Christian circles (see the discussion on chapter 12), but this example was a new one to me. You might want to talk about it in your group.

A link that might be helpful is Leo’s Tome, referred to on p. 69: https://www.ewtn.com/faith/teachings/incac1.htm

Here are some questions to respond to:

  1. Look at the chart on page 63. Based on your understanding of the chapter, does the community of your religious background have a Christology more like Alexandria or more like Antioch? Are such questions even asked in your religious community? If not, how does this affect the way you have read about this debate?
  2. It may be surprising to Protestants to realize how important language about Mary was to this debate. Do you think such an emphasis in the debate was appropriate? What role do you believe Mary should play in the life of Christians?
  3. The Chalcedonian debates tied into matters of church politics (Alexandria versus Antioch). Are “political” struggles inevitable in the church? Do they help reveal true Christianity or do they serve to distort it?
  4. The Christological debates highlighted the importance of the humanity as well as the divinity of Christ. The conclusion was that whatever aspects of humanity that Christ did not take on, his death could not redeem. What aspects of being human is it hard for you to imagine Christ “taking on?” Is it comforting or disconcerting to believe that He did so?
  5. One result of Chalcedon was divisions in Christianity which persist until the present day. Were the issues discussed at Chalcedon worth dividing over? Why or why not? Are there issues today that could cause schism that will not be resolved 1500 years from now?

Image credit for Vasily Surikov’s “Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Council_of_Chalcedon

Suggested next click: Chapter 4

Noll, Ch. 2: The Council of Nicaea (325 CE)

The second episode Noll describes jumps ahead to the fourth century, just after the Roman emperor Constantine made Christianity legal in the Roman Empire. As Noll says, bishops from around the Mediterranean met in 325 at the behest of the emperor; although they eventually discussed and made decisions on a variety of issues, the primary “presenting problem” was the description of Jesus that was going around Alexandria from the mouth of the a preacher named Arius.

This was not the first time that gatherings of Christian leaders had taken place; in fact, we know that they had been going on for many decades. When historians talk about regional gatherings, we tend to call them “synod” (from a Greek word for “gathering”); when we talk about gatherings of leaders from all corners of the Christian world – or at least as many as can make it – we call them “councils.” Since this one was held in Nicaea, we call it the “Council of Nicaea,” and it eventually the first of many “ecumenical [worldwide] councils” of the Church.

A couple of links that might be helpful:

Here are some further comments on Noll’s presentation in ch. 2, with questions to consider:

  1. Constantine was the one who called the council (notice the guy in the crown in the image at the top of this post).  It wasn’t the pope (who didn’t even go by that name yet) — it was the secular ruler.  He wanted to standardize the Christian religion in the empire.  How do you think people would react if an American president called major Christian leaders together — not to pray or consult, but to actually decide major matters of doctrine for American Christianity?
  2. Arius was extremely successful in marketing his understanding of Jesus’ relationship to God, so much so that Constantine felt the need to call the council. That tells me something about the state of Christian doctrine at that time: it was simply not the case that people said, “What, Arius?  You’re crazy!” A lot of things hadn’t been “decided” yet, and so there was diversity in the various beliefs that Christians held about Jesus.  Can you imagine living at a time in which we didn’t really have a lot of those “orthodox” Christian doctrines settled?  Or, looking forward, what doctrines do you think we will have settled in a thousand years that we don’t right now (if Jesus hasn’t come back by then)? 
  3. Obviously, the “content” of the council is hugely important, and the “Christological” content was captured in the text we know as the “Nicene Creed” (the painting on the left shows the “council fathers” holding the document).   Do you belong to a church that recites a creed every week? Have you ever belonged to one that does so?  If so, what is that like?  If not, and you have visited a church that does that, how did you react?  When you “state your faith” every week, is it odd, comforting, informative, or something else?
  4. Follow-up: What about the Christian groups that do not use creeds (for whatever reason)? Are they missing something by not having something like a creed? How might “Arian” views about Jesus flourish in a church that doesn’t use a creed (or one that does, for that matter)? What would that look like?
  5. As Noll says, the emperors in the mid-fourth-century sometimes supported what became the “orthodox position”; at other times they backed the “Arian view.” Given this historical state of affairs, how much confidence can we place in political leaders to protect various aspects of Christian doctrine, culture, and/or practice? What kinds of “protections” would we welcome? What would be unwelcome?
  6. The Nicene council is a turning point not just because it was important then, but also because it has shaped worldwide Christianity for the 1,700 years since it occurred.  Basically all Christians affirm the tenets of the Nicene Creed, even if they don’t know that text.  In fact, we hold a number of our Christian beliefs because we think “it says so” in the Bible… and yet sometimes the words come more from a creed than from the Bible itself.  For example, we believe that God made everything, but we tend to think about “heaven” and “earth” as the two parts of “all that exists” — God’s place, and everywhere else.  That’s probably partly because the creed says God is the “maker of heaven and earth.”  So: Is it odd to believe something, in part because (or knowing that) some people 1,700 years ago put it into words for you?  Most modern people want to think of things as their “own,” and yet Christian statements of doctrine, even though much of it is about God, are more the expressions of human beings than words directly revealed by God on stone tablets. Is that troubling or good news? Why?

Image credits for the two icons included above: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Council_of_Nicaea

Suggested next click: Chapter 3

Noll, Ch. 1: The Fall of Jerusalem (70 CE)

The first chapter of Noll’s book deals with a crisis in ancient Judaism that had implications for the Jesus movement.  He starts out by talking not about Christianity but rather Judaism.  This is important because Judaism is the context out of which Christianity emerges (as he says on p. 15, Christianity was an “offshoot” of Judaism), and that emergence is the focus of the chapter.

Then, on the fall of Jerusalem itself, he describes the unimaginable horrors that the residents of Jerusalem experienced during the siege.  Reading accounts of other sieges in the Bible (drinking one’s own urine, eating newborn babies for lack of other meat, etc.) are enough to turn one’s stomach.

Finally, Noll captures the event’s significance well at the top of p. 17: it helped “to move Christianity outward, to transform it from a religion shaped in nearly every particular by its early Jewish environment into a religion advancing toward universal significance in the broader reaches of the Mediterranean world, and then beyond.”  Many of the letters in the New Testament capture various elements of the challenges in this regard that Christianity faced at this time (e.g., Galatians on following the Jewish law, Colossians on the possible influence of Jewish philosophies, Revelation on the possibility of continued interaction between Christians and Jews, etc.).

If you’d like to read some of Josephus’s eyewitness account, click here: http://orion.it.luc.edu/~avande1/jerusalem/sources/wars6.htm

Here are some questions to respond to:

  1. The questions that Noll discusses on p. 18 are important.  What are other episodes in church history in which you have noticed Christians wrestling with questions like these: “What is the truth about God and Jesus’ relation to God?”  “How do we know the truth in these matters?”  “How do we put these truths into action?”  In those episodes, how did Christians answer one or more of the questions here?  Or, if you don’t know about episodes in history, how do you see that happening in our own day?
  2. It is interesting that, on pp. 23 and following, Noll describes the problem of “doing history” from scant evidence.  We don’t have that problem too often nowadays, given our contemporary glut of information.  But in some instances — for example, the death of Osama bin Laden a few years back — we are often dependent on less-than-full information.  In such cases and in your experience, how does the stance of the interpreter affect the interpretation/narration of a situation? Have you been involved in a situation like that, for example, in a car accident?
  3. Of the “three stabilizing elements” for Christianity that Noll describes beginning on p. 25 (canon, episcopacy, and creed), which has been most important for your own experience of Christianity?  Why do you think this is the case?
  4. This episode shows that racial tensions are not just something that Christians are dealing with in our own day.  How does the story of what happened in the early church affect your thinking about racial tension in the church today?
  5. The stories of Jesus’ crucifixion depict both the “Jews” and the Romans as a type of “enemy” of the Jesus-followers.  When you were reading about the “Jewish War” with Rome, did you find yourself sympathizing more with one or the other? What kinds of things do you think influenced the way that you respond to reading about that conflict?

Image credit for David Roberts’s The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Jerusalem_(70_CE)

Suggested next click: Chapter 2

The Problem of Authority

In the decades before Constantine legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire, persecution began to ramp up a bit — specifically in the form of the only two empire-wide persecutions the church experienced during that time.  After the persecutions were over, a new problem arose for church leaders: how to re-integrate people who have fallen away as a result of persecution.  Some who had undergone great persecution but had not died began to be revered as people of great spiritual fortitude, and people even began to seek them out as spiritual authorities.

Now, this may not be the most obvious candidate for a “Why Church History is Relevant” post.  We in the West don’t deal with a lot of overt persecution, and we certainly don’t have beaten and bloodied people challenging our pastors for spiritual authority.  However, I was recently reading a book about the early church with a couple of friends in Abilene.  One chapter in that book is devoted to early Christian perceptions of what the church is and what ministry is.  A member of the book club who is a lawyer asked, “So, what was the early church’s attitude toward authority?” His law training has taught him to be a close reader but also one sensitive to issues of coercion and consent; further, he is a Christian who loves the church, and he is concerned about how spiritual authority “works” in the modern church.

cartman authority

Here’s the deal: most of the people where I live are from the Protestant tradition, and the university community of which I am a part is historically and currently connected with the Churches of Christ. Both of these movements have historically said that authority is simply found in the Bible… and yet in both groups there has always been some kind of mediation, like a preaching pastor, a traditional way of reading that Bible, etc., to help us understand what the Bible is actually saying to us.  Crucially, though, in both groups that attitude is combined with a strong American individualism that  rebels against any authority that is perceived to be coercive or overbearing.

The real problem, honestly, is that pastoral authority often involves talking with people about how they live their lives.  That is not surprising given how we treat our spiritual leaders… but we should also remember that the words used in the early church for their leaders were names that had to do with age (and presumably wisdom), oversight, or shepherding.  All of these words have to do with relationship and guidance.

These days, and in most cases, someone who is struggling with an issue can easily read the Bible and make some conclusions of their own, perhaps based on how they think “God is speaking” to them through the Word.  If they go talk to a counselor, the counselor might ask how they feel about certain alternatives that they themselves have considered.  But if they talk to a pastor or a spiritual friend, that person might actually say, “You should do X” or “You should not do Y.”  And as Americans, we often don’t like that.

But then again, we do in fact let people tell us how to live our lives.  Some of us let political commentators tell us what to think.  Some of us let athletes or artists tell us (without words, sometimes) what a good life looks like.  Some of us let pastors who are not our own – someone we might listen to online, or someone whose blog or books we read – tell us how to live like Jesus.  Why do we do that?  Why do we trust people who do not know us to tell us how to live our lives?

dr phil

I think the answers can vary, but they often involve our respecting them in some way, or our wanting to be like them.  That makes sense, but from a Christian perspective, there’s a problem: those people don’t know us personally.  That’s true enough of celebrities, but even the pastors of our churches may not have the kind of intimate knowledge of us and our lives that would help them help us, beyond having something good to say generally.  To put it bluntly, people with whom we are in some kind of personal relationship know us more like the ways Jesus knows us, and thus they have a better ability to pastor us, whether formally or informally.  In other words, I think it may be more beneficial to us to allow people with whom we are in relational proximity to have authority over us.  They may not know us well, but they hopefully know us to some degree.

But then, of course, the final problem comes in: the human heart.  As Americans — as I noted above — we don’t like people telling us what to do.  That blends with the brokenness of our wills and hearts in troublesome ways.  Here’s what I mean.  We could have sensitive, thoughtful friends or pastors who know us well.  They could have full knowledge of a particular problem in our lives, and they could have prayer-filled advice to give us.  But what if we don’t want to take it?  What if our hearts are too hard?  That, my friends, is what preachers have been dealing with for 2,000 years — sometimes with persecution and “unforgivable sins,” or in more recent days with adultery, financial sin, and/or family brokenness.  May God bless us with authority figures who know us and whom we respect — and may God also give us the willingness to obey!

Image credits: http://scienceofthetime.com/wp-content/blogs.dir/2/files/2011/11/cartman1.jpg and http://www.dailydot.com/entertainment/dr-phil-without-the-dialogue/

Orthodoxy and Heresy

Burning StakeWhen people learn about the second and third centuries of church history, they are sometimes troubled by the concept of “orthodoxy” and “heresy” — especially the notion that there are ideas that are SO wrong that people should be excluded from the church for holding them.   The phenomenon began with the sense, on the part of those early Christian leaders, that certain beliefs were appropriately Christian, and that others, eventually called “heresies,” did not accurately represent Christian teaching.

So, the reason this is relevant for us is this: how do you deal with people who disagree with you?  And are there “levels” of disagreement?

One challenge in our world, given the plurality of religious beliefs and the variety existing within Christianity, is that we have to decide how we are going to treat people who differ from us in their Christian beliefs, not to mention those who are not Christian at all.  Just within Christianity, some people who want to keep the language of “orthodox” and “heresy” often use a third category called “heterodoxy” to refer to people who think differently – it’s different from the norm, but it’s not all the way to “wrong.”  So, one way to deal with difference is to functionally drop the category of “heresy” and put everything “different” into the box of “heterodoxy,” then you sort of avoid the problem – you say that people have different opinions, and you don’t have to worry about it anymore.

But what if you really think that someone’s beliefs are SO wrong that they approach the level of being harmful?  To cite an example from the early church, the early church leaders thought that the Gnostics’ ideas about Jesus were so off that they could harm the faith and even the salvation of those believed them, what do you do then?  There are some modern leaders who do not shy away from this language, calling a movie or book or belief or person “heretical.”  I hear zealous students use this language as well.  In other words, the beliefs aren’t just different – they are wrong to the point of being harmful!

So, some questions:

  • If you think someone’s beliefs are heretical, what do you do?  Do you confront them?  Do you talk about them, perhaps on social media?  Or do you keep your beliefs to yourself?
  • Does it matter if you are a church leader or just a “regular” church member?
  • If you do choose to condemn this person, do you so publicly, privately, or “only” in your heart?
  • Do you pray for the person in question?
  • Do you take him/her aside, asking about his/her beliefs?

I don’t think there is one right answer, to these questions but I do think that while we can sometimes be a little too accepting of anything out there as just “different,” other times we can be too quick to condemn and reject.  I am grateful that I do not live in a time when (most) church leaders have the power to put others to death for their beliefs, as I might have been tempted to exercise that power inappropriately.  That is, of course, a reality that one encounters in learning about the Reformation.

I’d like to propose that we find a middle course – somewhere between the phenomena of a) the student who sits in class and wants to agree with everyone, and b) the politicians who cannot find anything to agree on and demonize their opponents.  Middle courses are much harder to chart than these extremes, but we need to find them.  I don’t know what that middle ground might look like, but surely it exists, right?

(BTW: if you’d like to read an interesting book on this topic, check out Alistair McGrath’s recent Heresy.  Very readable and thought-provoking.)

Image source: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/51791464435048920/