Wednesday, December 10, 2014


The  Age of "Drama" in the Early Church (95 A.D. -- 600 A.D.)

       Since we will speak of a period in the church's life immediately after the apostles (called the "sub-apostolic" period), it might first be a good idea briefly to summarize the concept of "Apostle" before we plunge into the post-apostolic era. This will illuminate the difficulties the first bishops and martyrs experienced trying to figure out in untested circumstances how to step into the Apostles' shoes.  The Greek noun apostolos comes from the verb apostellein ("to send forth"). Note that Jesus himself is called an apostle (Heb 3:1: "Jesus the Apostle and high priest of our religion."). The immediate post-apostolic experience in the church might be thought of as reminiscent of the early United States government after the gigantic leaders Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton et. al. had passed away, leaving younger successors on their own in running the country.  The number 12 for the apostolic ministry seems to echo the 12 tribes of Israel, which the Twelve will judge (Mt. 19:28; Lk. 22:30).  The single greatest determinant for apostolic calling is the requirement that true apostles should first have been disciples who had personal experience with the living Christ.  Yet Paul, who had not been a disciple is accepted by the apostles who lived after the Resurrection, apparently because of his experience with Jesus on the road to Damascus and his obvious life in the Spirit as he evangelized in cities where he left functioning, new Christian communities behind him.

     Some scripture scholars doubt that Jesus himself named the Twelve "apostles."  But they do not doubt that Jesus himself chose the Twelve as those whom he "sent forth" to spread the gospel. There are somewhat mysterious figures named as apostles, namely, Barnabas (Acts 14:14), who seems to have shown up out of nowhere, and the utterly unknown figures Andronicus and Junias (Rom. 16:7, "well-known apostles" who served before Paul). The apostle's vocation is summed up as follows: He proclaims the risen Lord.  He is the bearer of Tradition.  He holds an office which pertains to the entire Church.  He appoints other officers, but not other apostles.  He is, in short, the basic constitutive element of the Church. It is obvious why such tasks and duties could not survive the Apostles on their respective deaths.  However, the apostolic office as the basic constitutive element of the Church could not end without the Church itself ending.  Hence the Church preserved apostolic power in other officers, and apostolic succession in the preaching within the Church's apostolic Tradition. 

       The first Bishop of Antioch (if the apostle Peter was not such person) was St. Ignatius of Antioch (35-107),  who called himself Theophoros ("bearer of God").  He was arrested and hauled off to Rome by ten Roman guards for martyrdom in the Colosseum.  Along the way from Antioch to Rome he both wrote letters to Christians in the cities he was carried through (or neighboring cities) and preached short sermons in seven cities, begging the congregations not to deprive him of martyrdom by intervening for him with pagan authorities. He carried forward authentic apostolic teaching by insisting on both the divinity and humanity of Jesus.  He also stressed that the life of Christ is carried forward in the Eucharist, which he called "the bread that is the flesh of Christ; this flesh which has suffered for our sins."  It was Ignatius, in the year 105, who gave the new Church its full name -- namely, the Catholic Church.  He emphasized that a key element of the Catholic Church was its preservation of Christian unity in the Empire. He preached that the safeguard of this unity was the office and person of the bishop. He proclaimed that the bishop was "as the Lord," and stressed that without a local church's submission to its bishop neither the Eucharist nor marriage could be celebrated.

       It would be true to say that the life of early Catholicism was a dramatic age, both for the surviving Apostles and after the twelve Apostles had all died.  By "drama" we mean that the life of the church was both electrifying and nerve-shattering, with early Christians constantly facing overwhelming, overpowering attacks by Roman authorities and ordinary Roman citizens. It was in the face of this force of destruction that motivated Christians in Rome to create secret catacombs as temporary hiding places, and as burial chambers for those martyred. This age of drama, as far as the church was concerned, was that non-Christian society, or the clear majority of the population, had become a serious problem for the church, beginning especially with the third pope after St. Peter, namely, St. Clement of Rome.
(First there was St. Peter, then Linus, then Cletus, then Clement, who was bishop of Rome from 80-101 A.D.). During Clement's tenure, beginning especially around 95 A.D., the church -- aside from trying to spread the gospel in the face of hideous persecutions by the Romans -- became involved in internal confrontations (i.e.,quarrels within the church) about all sorts of things that had never occupied the thoughts or actions of the twelve Apostles or of St. Paul and other early letter writers. The reason for the initial threat to the newly spreading church, insofar as its original place in Roman imperial society was viewed, could be traced to the fact that the authors of the New Testament had not intended their writings to be academic philosophy or scientific history. Yet, the ruling, elitist Roman citizenry were by and large raised and educated in an intellectualist and philosophical way of thinking and living.  Further, the powerful sense of historical authenticity acquired by the  Romans during the roughly 700 years of their existence meant that the majority of Roman citizens conducted themselves toward members of the upstart, parvenu church with murderous persecutions as well as with derisive insults and slandering of Christians and their religious practices. The average Roman citizen regarded Christian believers as if they were on the cultural level of what we might today call "carnival performers." Worse still, Christians were routinely designated as "cannibals," because of their emphasis on the Eucharist as the center of their worship and doctrine
       The church's bare survival in the face of this uttermost rejection by Rome's state-sanctioned and civilian abuse often created at times and in various places a great risk for Christians simply to become known publicly for their faith. This generality held true until Constantine became Emperor in 312 A.D. (more about him below). The post-apostolic bishops' developing dilemma during the first three centuries of the church's life without the Apostles' hands-on leadership produced what was a threatening, risky lifestyle for Christians, characterized by the dread and anxiety of arrest, torture and death. Christians' day-to-day existence among the majority Roman population was threatened by militant antagonism. The one saving grace of this period for Christians was that they struggled heroically -- to their deaths if need be -- to have their world-view accepted as the only valid one. Frequent martyrdom strengthened the faith of all Christians.  Martyrdom of course called forth faith from those about to be murdered, and word of the death of a Christian hastened to intensify a struggle between faith and fear for those still living. Yet, Christians nonetheless preached and practiced the singular validity of their faith.  The opportunity to do this presented itself when a small minority of Roman scholars began to write favorably on Christian practice and doctrine.  These Christian scholars began to compete with Roman scholars on their own intellectual level.

     Slowly and eventually Christians' life in this pagan Roman society -- little by little -- attracted Roman citizens to the church.  A principal reason for this was that Roman scholars and intellectuals had to confess that they were bored and cynical, sick and tired of the emptiness that pagan culture produced. They started to take a deeper look at Christianity.  With this development Christianity took on a bit of an academic air -- something which pacified many of the Church's enemies. Christian scholars came forth from Roman academia and began to write treatises in opposition to traditional Roman thinking -- treatises that were every bit as profound and erudite as the writings of the best Roman thinkers. Abstract, speculative Roman philosophy might have fed the minds of the Roman intellectuals, but this philosophy increasingly lost its hold on the intellectuals' souls. The growing prestige of the writings of Christian philosophers and intellectuals, incorporating truths of the gospel, caused a growing number of Roman scholars to succumb to the numbness created by the sterile demeanor of Roman philosophy. This was true especially as the Roman scholars began to look closely at their own life of sexual immorality and at the overwhelming corruption on the part of their leaders.

         Who were the actors in the drama of the early church?  First, strong political leaders, which in the days of the early church meant the Roman Emperors, some of whom, like Emperor Gallienus (260-268), toned down persecution of Christians, while yet others, such as Diocletian (284-305) increased it vigorously. 
Second, various Christian philosophers and theologians, some of whom were laymen and others priests or bishops, wrote and circulated treatises or letters among an increasing network of local churches summarizing how they thought particular Christian doctrines should be defined. Third, the early post-apostolic church was home to heretics, who themselves were sometimes priests and bishops. Heresy, was the formal denial or doubt by heretics of any defined doctrine of the Catholic faith. Their opponents in church offices believed the heretics cleverly discredited significant positions taken in the New Testament by apostolic writers such as the four Gospel writers, St. Paul and other scriptural letter writers. Arguments between Christian and pagan scholars, or arguments among Christian scholars, tended to become vitriolic and acrimonious,  
      As just one example of the hostility flowing back and forth from one disputing proponent of certain Christian beliefs to another, take the example of St. Jerome.  The faults of Jerome's character and temperament were many and obvious.  He was a great scholar and saint, however, not because of his tempestuous irascibility, his bitter sarcasm and self-conscious arrogance, but in spite of these things.  He tried to have himself appointed as the successor bishop of Rome, but became enraged when he was passed over by the Christians of Rome. He left the city for good for Bethlehem, where he began to translate the Bible into Latin.
However, when he quarreled with other Christian scholars he could write vitriolic letters to his opponents. One example is a letter he wrote to an opposing scholar named Rufinus, starting his letter with the cheerful salutation, "To Rufinus, not a man, but a dog that returns to its own vomit, Greetings."  Yet, no one thought Christians were free of sins and faults, especially when intellectuals like Jerome, despite his peppery disposition, nonetheless greatly advanced the cause of the gospel.  After all, he gave us the Vulgate Latin translation of the Bible that lasted into the 20th Century. "Vulgate" meant commonpopularintended for the average literate believer.  Had Jerome not spent most of his time on biblical scholarship, it is doubtful that entire generations of Christians would ever have had any contact with the pages of Scripture.  The Holy Spirit used Jerome in spite of the fault lines in his personality.

     When persecutions lessened after the reign of Diocletian, arguments between Christian intellectuals gradually increased. This was because with decreasing arrests and persecutions toward the year 300, Christian scholars grew stronger in publishing their writings with their names attached. In this atmosphere reciprocal heretical writings (disagreements among Christians over core Christian doctrines) at times became a central element of drama in the early church. Those leaders of the church who disputed with heretics tried to find some way to summarize in depth and detail the errors of the heretics, and turned to letter-writing to do so. Their letters often took on the character of something that came to be called "Rules of Faith," or Creeds, that is, summaries of doctrine attempting to settle conflicts between authentic Christian scholars and leaders and those who were found to be confirmed heretics. However, the problem with attempting to put Creeds into letters was that letters did not reach a wide enough audience to squelch heretical teaching throughout the entire world of the early church -- as we shall see in more detail shortly. For the moment, let us give an example of an early creedal statement by quoting from Pope Clement's "Letter to the Corinthians," in which, Clement, writing roughly around the years 96-98 A.D. corrected misbehavior among members of the church in Corinth and then closed with a mini-Creed setting forth a doctrinal summary:
 The Apostles received the gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ; and Jesus Christ was sent from God.  Christ, therefore, is from God, and the Apostles are from Christ.  Both of these orderly arrangements, then, are by God's will.  Receiving their instructions and being full of confidence on account of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and confirmed in faith by the word of God, they went forth in the complete assurance of the Holy Spirit, preaching the good news that the Kingdom of God is coming.
       This creedal "canon" (as numbered paragraphs in creeds were called) in Pope Clement's letter obviously instructed the Corinthians on an important point of authentic Christian doctrine.  However, his letter was something that was intended for, and kept by, only the Corinthians. There were a number of these creedal letters sent out among the early Christian communities by bishops and theologians, but it took a major and widespread heretical movement finally to inspire an "Ecumenical Council," that is a gathering of most bishops of the church speaking as a joint body of leaders who were able to take the Council's Creed back to their local churches.  In this way, more than just a small number of local churches were instructed on a vital matter of doctrine affecting all of Christendom. To enter into the deliberations of the first and perhaps greatest early ecumenical Ecumenical Council -- namely, The Council of Nicaea of 325 A.D. -- we must now turn to the influence on church doctrine inspired by the Roman Emperor, Constantine, whose mother was St. Helena. In 312 A.D. Constantine solidified his sole grip on the Empire after defeating his rival in the western part of the empire in a battle for sole control of the entire Roman Empire. Constantine achieved this sole control after having a vision of the "Labarum," an intersecting "X" and "P," or the first two letters of "Christ" as written in Greek (Chi and RhoXP, or in English, "ChR"). 
In his vision, Constantine also saw the Latin words, "In hoc signo vinces," meaning, "By this standard conquer."  Sure enough, Constantine, after being greatly swayed by the four words of his vision, defeated his rival and became sole emperor. From that moment on Christianity became the "favored" religion of the Empire, but not the "official" religion.  Emperor Theodosius I (379-395) in 378 created a Roman empire based on orthodox Christian doctrine as official state religion well after Constantine's death. Constantine knew nothing about the Christian gospel, although his mother continually tried to bring him to a lasting conversion and had much success, given Constantine's total ignorance of religion in general and Christianity in particular.  Constantine, having ousted his rival in the western empire, next decided to attack his rival in the eastern part of the Empire.  He was successful, and thus by 324 had joined together the two halves of the Empire under his domination. 

       As an all-important dictate for the first ecumenical council, later to be held in 325 in the important eastern city of Nicaea, Constantine decided to move his throne to the east, to the Greek city of Byzantium, which the emperor would  re-name after himself in the year 330 -- as "Constantinople."  Constantinople's name would be changed again much later, this time by the Moslems in 1453, who named the city Istanbul (as it still is today). An issue that would be vitally important for the future of church councils in the east -- which Constantine, and not bishops, presided over -- is this: Did Constantine ever actually convert to Christianity?  He was not another St. Paul, that is, he did not make a sudden life-changing acceptance of Jesus as Lord. He was a pagan through and through, and it took him twenty-five years after his military victory in 312 for him to come to a true understanding of the gospel.  Hence, in the year of his death, 337, he was baptized as a truly believing Christian.  During the quarter century leading him to his baptism there is no doubt that the emperor had become a sincere Christian.  However, before his baptism, he saw himself as the leader of the bishops who met at Nicaea to resolve the Arian heresy (as we will get to beginning in the next paragraph).  At Nicaea he announced vociferously that he was "a bishop of God," and this announcement, to his mind, meant he was a greater bishop then the ecclesiastical bishops attending and debating at the Council of Nicaea.

     It was a tricky matter for the bishops at Nicaea to put up with Constantine's imperious running of the Council.  The bishops would have been crazy had they appointed someone like Jerome to chastise the emperor for being no "bishop of God" but an outright phony. Instead it fell to the true leader of the Council, St. Athanasius (296-373), to discuss with Constantine in as humble and meek a way as possible in order to persuade the emperor to let the true bishops run the Council instead of the "bishop of God."  Whatever Athanasius said to Constantine, and however much he had to bend over backwards to avoid offending him, Constantine was somehow persuaded by Athanasius not to control the decisions made by the bishops of the Council. Actually, Constantine didn't really recognize the doctrinal controversies under discussion by the bishops at the Council . The emperor saw the Council simply as a means of bringing political unity to his eastern empire and under his firm control. Thus he never interfered in doctrinal discussions, which for him were literally written in a foreign language (Greek, instead of Constantine's mother tongue of Latin). In the eventual Nicene Creed, the bishops apparently kowtowed to Constantine by "congratulating him" on the scholarly gloss he put on the Creed. The emperor of course believed this apple-polishing foolishness, as he had literally nothing to do personally with the language of the Creed. Yet, as the "bishop of God," he apparently felt that God had led him to come to some sort of acceptance of the wording -- a very fortunate result for the church.  It is still fortunate for the church today. Through the centuries, the church has not had to call the Nicene Creed the "Creed of the Bishop of God."  Incidentally, there were probably 318 eastern bishops in attendance at the Council, but only 5 western bishops. The reason for this was twofold ; (1) It was dangerous travelling from the Latin west to the Greek east because by this time barbarians from northern Europe threatened the principal roads formerly controlled by Rome running from the west to the east.  (2)  While Pope Sylvester I (314-335) in Rome had a hazy idea of Arianism and was opposed to it, the heresy did not penetrate the Latin church in the west as it did the Greek church in the east.

       Therefore, the Council of Nicaea eliminated, for the time being a spreading and powerful heresy namely, the heresy ofArianism. Let us look now at the priest, Arius (250-336), and "his" heresy, as named after him.  Arianism inflicted on Christian dogma as held by the eastern bishops a heavy burden, as he gained many Christian followers, including bishops and priests. Arius was born probably in Libya. He was ordained a deacon of the Diocese of Alexandria, Egypt, by St. Peter, bishop of Alexandria (300-312).  However, Bishop St. Peter later excommunicated Arius for his membership in a schismatic and heretical group named the Melitians. Upon the death of Bishop St. Peter, he was succeeded by Bishop Achillas of Alexandria (312-13), who ordained Arius a priest of the Diocese of Alexandria and then made Arius pastor of Baucalis, a principal church of the diocese.  Arius was a gifted preacher (as is useful for a heretic) and also an ascetic, prompting many Christians to hold up his fasting and sacrifices as proof that his doctrinal views must be accurate. Under the next bishop, Bishop St. Alexander of Alexandria (313- 328), Arius openly championed the heresy of Subordinationism. 
This heresy taught either (1) that the Son is subordinate to the Father -- or (2) that the Holy Ghost is subordinate to both Father and Son.  Arius, and his followers who accepted Subordinationism, did so, they said, because they considered that the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity compromised monotheism.  The heretics believed that their position was backed up by Scripture, namely Jn.14:28 ("You heard me say to you, 'I go away, and I will come to you.'  If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I go to the Father; for the Father is greater than I.'")  Arius made many converts to his position, but he was excommunicated by Bishop St. Alexander of Alexandria in 321. Bishop St. Alexander decided to communicate what he had done to the leading theologian of the west, Bishop Hosius of Cordova (257-357), who acted as Emperor Constantine's ecclesiastical advisor. 

       Constantine ordered Hosius to Alexandria to investigate the controversy between Arius and  Bishop St. Alexander. Based on Hosius' report to Emperor Constantine, the emperor summoned the Council of Nicaea in 325, and it is thought by some historians  that the emperor appointed Hosius to preside over the Council. This may have been true, but it was obvious that one western bishop, Hosius, could not sway the large number of eastern bishops in attendance to any particular theological conclusion, even if he understood their argumentation in Greek. Five years before the Council had convened, that is, in 320, Arius had written a snide and contemptuous letter to Bishop St. Alexander explaining his (Arius') conception of the Trinity and arguing for the bishop's acceptance of this conception. Arius' Trinity was made up of a Monad and a Dyad.  The Monad is the Father, while the Dyad is composed of His two most glorious creatures, the Son, who is less than the Father, and the Holy Spirit, who is less than the Son.  Further progressions of Arius' heresy made matters worse throughout the Greek church.  These subsequent developments were recorded by the Church historian Sozomen as follows:

The Son of God was created out of non-being, there was a time when he did not exist, according to his will he was capable of evil as well as virtue, and he is a creature and created.  The Son who is tempted, suffers, and dies, however exalted he may be, is not equal to the immutable Father beyond pain and death; if he is other than the Father, he is inferior. Before the Son was begotten or created or ordained or established, he did not exist.  If the Father begat the Son, he that was begotten had a beginning of existence; hence it is clear that there was when he was not.  It follows of necessity that he had his existence from the non-existent.
       The bishops at the Council of Nicaea responded to Arius' heresy by attempting to produce a document, based in Scripture, that would declare without reservation, without exception, that the Son is not a creature.  But, as we all know,biblical texts are subject to multiple interpretations, and the Arian supporters were certainly not lacking in skill to present theirs. The problem for the anti-Arian bishops at Nicaea was that the Bible nowhere says "The Son of God is one in
being with the Father, and he was not created in time, but eternally begotten."  St. Athanasius, only a deacon at the Council -- later bishop of Alexandria -- argued for a Creed that clarifies what the Bible says about the Son's relationship to the Father. There were three Greek definitions considered by the bishops to produce the Creed which St. Athanasius championed: (1) They could have said the Son was homoiousious, or of like substance [or reality] with the Father, (2) that the Son washomoios, or like the Father, or finally, (3) that the Son was homoousios, of the same substance [or reality] with the Father. In the end the bishops followed St. Athanasius' lead and chose the third alternative.

       The word homoousios, i.e.,of the same substance with the Father, is a philosophical concept that is not found in the Bible, but nowhere in the Bible is there a word which so precisely defines the core Christian doctrine of the Son's equal divinity to the Father.  This was a case where philosophy came to the assistance of revelation, with the Holy Spirit continuing to clarify Church doctrine well after the Gospels were written.

Conclusion:  How is the homoousios doctrine used in Catholic liturgy? Homoousios has received various translations over the years for the time during Mass when the faithful recite the Creed or the Profession of Faith.
Originally the homoousios doctrine was used literally, that is the faithful recited in the Creed at Mass that the "one Lord Jesus Christ" is "of the same substance as the Father."  Later, the homoousios doctrine was translated so that the "one Lord Jesus Christ" was said to be "one in being with" the Father. As of this writing, the homoousios doctrine is translated for the Profession of Faith at Mass so that the "one Lord Jesus Christ"  is said to be "consubstantial" with the Father.  However the Church's magisterium chooses to translate and use the homoousios doctrine, we can be assured that the faith and insight of those bishops at Nicaea in 325 A.D. heard the Holy Spirit speak to them correctly. Today it's "consubstantial" that is used for our English Profession of Faith in stating the relationship of God the Son to God the Father.  The important thing is to reflect on what we are saying in the recitation of the Creed at Mass. As for me, I'm "consubstantial," that is of the "same reality" with what the bishops who wrote the Creed of Nicaea -- long-tested, marvelously struggled over and faithfully passed down to me -- accomplishes.  Gratefully, and in adoration to the eternal Son of God who is of the same substance as His divine Father, let us close this discussion.
--Tony Gilles