Friday, March 2, 2007

The Empire Strikes Back - by Joining the Rebels

“I believe in One God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible:...”

So begins the Nicene Creed, one of the most ecumenical of all the creeds with the Presbyterian, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and most Protestant churches affirming it. Most people know it was written in the forth century, in an effort to bring together the various factions within Christianity that threatened to tear it apart. It sought to focus on what everyone held in common belief, rather than draw attention to the places where there were differences.

But what the average person in the pew does not know is the creed's connection to one of the great turning points in church history.

When Emperor Constantine legitimized Christianity shortly after his conversion, it brought to the surface the two main factions within the church. Christians in the Roman empire were divided between Arianism (which denies the divinity of Christ) and Trinitarianism (which sees God as three persons in one being). Before Christianity could fulfill it's role of the official state religion, this fundamental question had to be answered.

The first universal church council, held in the city of Nicea (in present day Turkey) in the year 325, resisted Arianism, with all but three of its Bishops voting for a creed that enshrined a belief in the Trinity. For many the idea of the Trinity was too hard to understand, and even its adherants admitted it had to be accepted largely on faith. But they felt the doctrine found its basis in scripture. If God is infinite, as Christians teach, He must exist in infinite dimensions and beyond space-time as we know it. Oddly enough, we now have the mathematics required to explain multi-dimensionality and the concept is far more readily accepted.

It was emperor Theodosius who ended the dispute by simply using his authority to issue an edict. The edit required that everyone must be a Christian. Not only that, the edit defined what it was to be a Christian. A Catholic (universal) Christian, it said, was one who held the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to be one Godhead and equal in majesty, essentially adopting the Nicene Creed as the de facto statement of belief.

The following year, Theodosius issued another edict specifically requiring worship of the one God according to the Nicene Creed. When the bishop of Constantinople, an Arian fellow by the name of Demophilus, refused to affirm the Nicene Creed, the emperor deposed him and replaced him with a Trinitarian, Gregory.

These edicts are significant for many reasons. First of all it made Christianity the official "state religion", and in so doing established an official, state-endorsed definition of what it was to be a Christian. In addition, they mark the first time the law of the land coerced people to become Christians, a contentious issue that would not be settled for hundreds of years. They made Catholic Christianity the official dogma of the church and established a pattern of using the apparatus of the state to suppress diversity of religious opinion. The church can only regret that before all was done, pagans, Arians, Manichees, and Jews were persecuted by people calling themselves Christians; many did not hold the name Christian due to zeal for Christ, but rather, because it was politically correct.

Theodosius' edict, making the Roman Empire "Christian", suppressing Arianism and establishing the concept of the Trinity as doctrine in the Christian church, was issued on February 27th, 380 -- 1,627 years ago this week.

Other things that happened this week... Feb. 25 - Mar. 3

February 25, 1536 - In Moravia, Anabaptist leader Jakob Hutter is tortured, whipped, and immersed in freezing water (to mock Anabaptist baptismal practices), then doused with brandy and burned. King Ferdinand had ordered the persecution of all Anabaptists because of a few violent, revolutionaries in Munster, Germany—even though most Anabaptists were pacifists and renounced the rebellion.

February 26, 398 - John Chrysostom becomes bishop of Constantinople. Johns' preaching skills were legendary, so much so that he earned the name "golden-mouth." He was a reluctant bishop, but nevertheless he executed the office to the best of his ability, preaching fervently against greed, sin and corruption. In 403 he spoke out against the empress Eudoxia for depriving a widow of her vineyard. The empress exiled him. So great was the outcry at his treatment she was forced to recall him, but he again offended Eudoxia, who again exiled him. He died three years later.

February 28, 1763 - According to radical Methodist George Bell, this was to be the day the world would end and God’s judgement would come upon mankind. Bell’s claims of having attained perfection and his brash prediction did serious damage to the Methodist movement. John Wesley opposed them both publicly and privately but was unable to convince Bell and his folloowers that they were in error, despite the fact few of their predictions proved true. Eventually Wesley was forced to exclude them from the movement.

March 1, 1854 - Pioneer missionary Hudson Taylor lands in Shanghai, China. "My feelings on stepping ashore I cannot attempt to describe," he wrote. "My heart felt as though it had not room and must burst its bonds, while tears of gratitude and thankfulness fell from my eyes." Taylor would found the China Inland Mission in 1865, and popularized the idea that missionaries should live and dress like the people they seek to evangelize.

March 2, 1938 - Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller, one of the founders of Germany's "Confessing Church" is sentenced to seven months in prison for opposing Hitler. Though his name is often forgotten, many remember his words after the war as he apologized for not having acted sooner. "First they came for the socialists and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist," he said. "Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. They came for me and there was no one left to speak for me."

March 3, 1547 - At Session 7 of the Council of Trent, the Roman Catholic church defines its theology of the sacraments. Rejecting the teachings of the Protestants that only two were required - Baptism and the Lord's Supper, the Council declared that seven sacraments are necessary for salvation--Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, Extreme Unction, Orders, and Matrimony.

1 comment:

John Bryson said...

That's awesome. And the thing is, that diversity amongst Chistians today is still shunned, rather, most feel that Legalistic,traditional, what they were told growing up, ways are what needs to be pushed on everyone. Why is it that the dumbest people have the loudest mouths? If you haven't already, read the book "Adventures in Missing the point" by Mclaren.
Keep up the great blog!