In my Church History class, we have recently moved from the early era of the persecuted church into the era of the church-in-bed-with-the-empire. This also happens to be the era of creeds. I get the sense that for many, this represents merely a bunch of names, dates, and outcomes to memorize. Ancient History. But for me, this chunk of history has been particularly agonizing, highly relevant, and a poignant reminder that in a few short years, I have to stand in front of my presbytery and affirm that I “sincerely receive and adopt” these creeds as “authentic and reliable expositions of what scripture leads us to believe and do.”
First and foremost among these ecumenical shin-digs is the Council of Nicaea (CE 325). Seems the whole thing started from an argument between a priest, Arius, and a bishop, Alexander. Among the things that Arius believed:
- “The Word” (aka Jesus, aka the Son, aka logos) wasn’t around from the beginning of time (whatever one construes “time” to be, of course) but was “created” by God (aka Jehovah, aka the Father, Creator, etc.).
- Therefore, God outranks Jesus in the heavenly hierarchy, conveniently preserving the monotheism argument. But complicating the logical one…
- God and Jesus are made of different stuff. Similar stuff, unidentifiable stuff, but decidedly different stuff.
- God is constant, but word/son/Jesus is subject to change (including suffering).
Apply the converse to most of these arguments, and you have Alexander’s POV. Arius gathered a following, wrote some texts and even some hymns (maybe something like “Of the Father’s love begotten / ere the worlds began to be after being baptized in Galilee…”) and then everyone got their panties all in a wad.
I know that I’m supposed to agree with Alexander, and most people I’ve encountered seem to do that pretty readily, sometimes without much thought. The two main arguments (at least from what I could find online and in talking to other students) go something like this:
- The argument of Alexander was the stronger of the two theologically and logically, and thus prevailed.
From what I can tell, there were intelligent arguments by intelligent men on both sides of the issue, and both firmly supported by different scripture passages. I guess we could assume that [sarcasm on] Arius was just an idiot who couldn’t read, in which case it *really* baffles me that the best theological minds of the time spent half a century going back and forth before finally resolving the dispute. Maybe we’re just a lot smarter than they were. [sarcasm off]
- Alexander’s side eventually DID prevail. This proves God was somehow guiding the process and wouldn’t have allowed the church to wander down a heretical path.
Except that it did. For at least fifty years after the council of Nicaea, until the next big council in 381, the church and its leaders continued to go back and forth on the issue. And unless Arius was just some highly original genius, who’s to say that generations of Christians in the 300 years before the Nicene Creed hadn’t come to similar conclusions? (my history text indicates that Arius’ views reflected the historical tradition held by a large number of Eastern Christians). Does that mean that God allows the church to remain in heresy, but only for 50 years? Or is it 300? Or…well, maybe we’re in a heresy phase right now?
I don’t know that I actually agree with Arius. Or Alexander. Actually, the voice that most resonates most with me in this debate is that of the Roman Emporor at the time, the famed Constantine. He wrote a letter to both knuckleheads, saying (among other things):
It was wrong in the first instance to propose such questions as these, or to reply to them when propounded. For those points of discussion which are enjoined by the authority of no law, but rather suggested by the contentious spirit which is fostered by misused leisure, even though they may be intended merely as an intellectual exercise, ought certainly to be confined to the region of our own thoughts, and not hastily produced in the popular assemblies, nor unadvisedly entrusted to the general ear. For how very few are there able either accurately to explain subjects so sublime and abstruse in their nature?
Translation: You both have waaaaay too much time on your hands. You should try farming, or fighting barbarians sometime. Then see how important your consubstantiation is. Constantine continues (and I add some emphasis)…
The cause of your difference has not been any of the leading doctrines or precepts of the divine law, nor has any new heresy respecting the worship of God arisen among you. You are in truth of one and the same judgment: you may therefore well join in communion and fellowship. For as long as you continue to contend about these small and very insignificant questions, it is not fitting that so large a portion of God’s people should be under the direction of your judgment, since you are thus divided between yourselves…(Eusebius, Life of Constantine, II, 69-71)
But Constantine was just an emperor. What could he know? He wasn’t even baptized until he was on his deathbed, the heathen. So, they ignored him of course, not because he didn’t make sense, but (my opinion here) because they each wanted to be RIGHT! And we still do. Unfortunately for Arius, democracy can be a real bitch, so he got outvoted at the council. And excommunicated. And then he was reinstated, and Alexander was excommunicated. And then Arius was excommunicated again. You get the idea…
Meanwhile, the church kept having councils, and kept on saying to those with whom they disagreed, “we’re taking our toys and going home. You can’t play with us anymore. Nanny, nanny, boo, boo.” Unity and uniformity gained, diversity and freedom lost.
When I go before my Committee for Preparation for ministry, I wonder if I can take a third option? Can I say, in reference to the creeds, I don’t care? Affirm, not affirm, it doesn’t matter to me one way or another. Let me simply do the things that Jesus did, rather than say the things his followers said, 300 years later.
The illegal immigrant wandering through the desert without water doesn’t really give a rip whether God and Jesus are made out of the same substance. But Jesus tells me to give him something to drink. To the teenager whose father died in a car accident, it is utterly insignificant whether Jesus was created by God or always existed. But Jesus tells me to comfort him. What is ministry? What is a minister?
Perhaps we have too long supposed that what we believe informs who we are and what we do. Maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe what we do informs who we are and what we believe. Perhaps what ties me to my Presbyterian brothers and sisters is not the historic creeds we all profess nearly as much as it is the shared relationships and shared ministry I have found among them.
I hope they’ll still let me in…
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