Saturday, October 3, 2015


             In this blog posting we will find the Church Fathers appearing as leaders in the struggle to preserve Apostolic Christianity, that is the teaching of Christianity that came entirely from the Apostles. The need for the early Fathers' skill in defining orthodox Christianity became crucial to the life of the Church. Had not the right Fathers come forward at the right time and place to reject heresies that were literally dividing the church in two, many of us might find ourselves members today of a "Gnostic" (pronounced "nahstic") or other heretical branch of Christianity.

Defining Heresy and Gnosticism

               Before going further into the Church's struggle against the first and most divisive and powerful heresy, i.e., Gnosticism, let us define "heresy" and its principal body of belief and doctrine as the Church came to speculate on it as early as St. Paul's "Pastoral Letters," i.e., 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus, probably written by Paul while he was under house arrest in Rome before being executed as ordered by Emperor Nero (63 - 67 A.D.). First of all, we probably think of the meaning of heresy in the technical theological sense of the formal denial or doubt of any defined doctrine of the Catholic faith. This derivation of the Greek word used in the New Testament for heresy, namely, airesis, is somewhat strange in that its usage in the New Testament does not connote what we think of heresy today, namely, the denial of dogma. Instead, airesis was used to denote "choice" or "thing chosen."

               This meaning was applied to the tenets of certain philosophical schools. In this sense it appears occasionally in Scripture to designate a religious party or sect. This was the use made of the Greek word for the "sect of the Sadducees" (Acts 5:17), and "sect of the Pharisees (Acts 15:5). The concept of Christian unity, essential to the early Church, did not favor the admission of sects, parties, or other divisive influences within the early Church. Paul uses the Greek word airesis in Galatians 5:20 when listing the most serious vices within a Church body, namely "dissensions" and "factions." In 2 Peter 2:1 the author condemns "false teachers among you, who will introduce destructive heresies." This is the closest the New Testament comes to using our modern concept of heresy as the denial of dogma.

               Heresy, both the word and the concept, received a great boost in usage when inserted by St. Ignatius of Antioch (c.35 -c.107 A.D.) in letters he wrote while being taken under guard to Rome and his martyrdom in the colosseum. He warns the recipients of his letters to fiercely resist a Judaizing heresy with "Docetic" elements. Docetism, as the main heresy in the early Church, stood for the proposition that the humanity and sufferings of the earthly Christ were apparent, even imaginary, rather than real. With the letters of St. Ignatius heresy entered the vocabulary and teaching of the early Church as a fixed doctrine -- which interestingly had as its target the repudiation of fixed doctrine. Notice that we call Docetism a Judaizing heresy. This means that it was preached mainly by early Christians who had been converted from Judaism, but who had not completely rejected those aspects of Judaism that were incompatible with the radical challenge of the Incarnation on their beliefs.

               Thus "heresy," which in the Greek airesis first focused on the naming of sects or parties, now became a dogma that gained steam as a false teaching rejecting authentic Christian dogma. More and more Fathers of the early Church found that Gnostic Docetism was a major source of confusion among early Christians. These first Christians believed in Jesus as Lord, but they were often swayed by Gnostics to believe, or at least to consider, Gnosticism's perverted teachings that Jesus was not truly of divine birth, life and death. As we turn next to the heretical teachings of the Gnostics we find that they preached Docetism as their major doctrine. They preached it constantly as they attacked authentic Christianity, which was based completely on the true and real Incarnation of Jesus, from his birth to his death on the cross and resurrection.

               We know much more about third- and fourth-century defenders of orthodox Christianity than we do of the first- and second-century Fathers. It was these earlier Fathers who struck out at Gnosticism as it had penetrated the early Church. First of course, St. Paul blasted the Gnostic teachings (without yet knowing or ever using the word "Gnosticism,") in his "Pastoral Letters" (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus). Paul in these letters was simply telling his disciples Timothy and Titus, appointed by Paul as "supervisors" or "overseers" of the churches in Ephesus and Crete respectively (the word "bishop" had not yet arisen), to strike out strongly at "false teachings." Paul used "false teachings" rather than Gnosticism because he had not yet understood that Gnosticism was a new heretical movement spreading throughout the early Church. But he knew certain elements of the false teachings of Gnosticism and listed them in his Pastoral Letters, an example of which is the following excerpt from 1 Timothy:

"I repeat the request I made to you [to] stay in Ephesus to instruct certain people not to teach false doctrines or which promote speculations rather than the plan of God that is to be received with faith...They forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to receive with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good... Whoever teaches something different and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus conceited, understanding nothing, and has a morbid disposition for arguments and verbal disputes." (1 Tm: 1:1-4; 4: 3-4; 6: 3-4)

Gnosticism: The Essential Core of Heresy

               Now let's turn to an analysis of Gnosticism, which was to be the principal heresy in the early Church, and which has never really gone away. In confining our discussion in this posting to the "heresy of all heresies," i.e., Gnosticism, the leading Church Father, and in fact the first Church Father who focused his apostolate entirely on refuting Gnosticism was St. Irenaeus (c. 130 - c. 200), Bishop of Lyons in today's southern France. It was St. Irenaeus' special task to answer very difficult and challenging questions, such questions as: Was Jesus truly God? Wasn’t he perhaps “less of a God” than the Father? Isn’t it possible that the Father just gave Jesus some share of his divinity at a later point in Jesus’ life, such as when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan? This category of Gnostic teaching was known as Adoptionism, meaning that God the Father “adopted” Jesus, a word which supporters of the heresy intended to be a metaphor to describe Jesus’ inferior divinity. Others argued that, even if Jesus was truly God, surely he wasn’t an actual human being like all the rest of us, was he? Isn’t it possible that he just looked and acted human?

               The early Church’s answer to such questions was of vital importance to the way in which Christianity was to develop. Was Christianity truly the unique religion it proclaimed itself to be in which the eternal God entered fully into the human condition by becoming a man in the person of Jesus? Or was Christianity just another version of the ancient religious myths, about which people in the Roman Empire had speculated for centuries. Many Christians who at first had followed Apostles like Paul left the church because of lack of a clear understanding of authentic Christian doctrine. Many offshoot bodies, formerly part of the authentic Church, existed for centuries in the East, until many Eastern ex-Christians were converted again – this time to Islam.

               The Gnostics (from the Greek word gnosis, “knowledge”) were people who believed that they possessed a special version of secret knowledge about life reserved only for an elite few. There were many varieties of Gnostics. Some of them borrowed bits and pieces of their beliefs from Judaism, but they distorted Judaism, teaching that Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, was in actuality an evil angel who created the earth and human beings. The Gnostics believed that spiritual realities were of more value than earthly realities. For example, they mistrusted the human body, marriage and all material creation. Yet, there was a wide variety of Gnostic lifestyles. Some Gnostics ignored moral values and lived in communes where group sex was practiced and marriage was scorned as foolish. Other Gnostics, however, were ascetical, remaining celibate for reasons of “purity,” and adhering to strict dietary rules so as not to cloud their spiritual perception. Their main belief was that they, and only they, possessed a hidden, secret knowledge about how the soul, through manipulating the techniques they learned through this secret knowledge, could reunite with the true God, who existed above the heaven of the Jewish and Christian God. Usually they visualized this unification with the true God as a lengthy process of ascent through countless stages, each stage dependent on learning a piece of hidden gnosis, usually through the help of learned masters urging them along toward ever higher states of being.

               Gnosticism’s principal threat to the gospel was its teaching that God had not really become a human being in the person of Jesus. The Gnostics taught either that Jesus was simply a highly enlightened man or that he was an angel or spiritual messenger who only appeared to be a man. The latter teaching was the heresy of Docetism, which we have already considered. The bishops of the early church realized the danger Gnosticism presented and confronted it. The most skillful foe of Gnosticism, Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons, used as his main tool of refutation his treatise called Against Heresies. The aim of that work was to preserve the main doctrine of Christianity—namely, that God actually had become a man in the person of Jesus. Jesus was not an angel who merely appeared to be a man; Jesus truly was a human being while at the same time divine. The eternal Word, the Son of God, really had become human, and really did live among people on earth.

               Through the work of bishops like Irenaeus, Gnosticism as such began to diminish in importance. By the year 200 or so, most Christians were capable of distinguishing between Jesus as a divine messenger or angel, as the Gnostics taught, and Jesus as the man who was divine, as Christianity taught. But questions about the nature of Jesus’ divinity did not go away. Many people now wondered whether Jesus was of “equal divinity” to the Father. In other words, some Christians asked, was Jesus a great man sharing some degree of divine awareness, but not actually on the same plane as the eternal Father? If so, then Jesus would have been someone like the Buddha, who lived about five-hundred years before Jesus, namely, “enlightened” but not divine.

Arianism and the Council of Nicaea

Confusion about Jesus’ relationship to the Father as promoted as the Gnostics' basic doctrine was especially prominent in the East. In the early fourth century, an Egyptian priest named Arius taught the original first-century Gnostic doctrine that the Son of God was inferior in his divinity to the Father, or as he put it “a lesser God.” Arius was a skilled preacher and gained much support for his doctrine, even among bishops. A great controversy began to rage, known to us today as the Arian controversy. Arius’s doctrine is known as Arianism, which is the belief that the Son of God was created in time and is inferior in his divinity to the Father. The debate between Arian and non-Arian bishops became so heated and controversial, with divisions becoming ever-widening between ordinary Christians over this subject, that Emperor Constantine himself found it necessary to intervene. In actuality, Arianism was simply a revival of the Gnostic teachings that Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons had refuted over a century earlier.

               In the year 325, Emperor Constantine convened a council at Nicaea, located in today’s Turkey, south of the empire’s Eastern capital of Constantinople (named Istanbul today). Some 318 bishops came to the Council of Nicaea, but only five of them were Western bishops. By and large, it was still Eastern bishops who were involved in the great theological debates, although of course it was much easier for Eastern bishops to travel to Nicaea than it was for Western bishops. The leader of the traditional Catholic party, upholding the belief of the early Church as clarified by the Church Fathers, was a young deacon from Alexandria named Athanasius (297–373). St. Athanasius argued that it would be impossible to overcome Gnostic Arianism unless the Council arrived at a formula, or creed, which defined just what the relationship was between the Son and the Father. Athanasius believed that truths in the gospel sometimes need further explanation in order to be made clearer. He thus proposed using a Greek word -- homoousios -- not found in Scripture in order to make it clear what Christians believed about the relationship between Father and Son.

               That word is translated in today’s Profession of Faith as “consubstantial” so that the Son is said to be of equal divinity with the Father. To make this point clearer, the bishops at the Council of Nicaea, in writing their Nicene Creed, added that the Son of God is “eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, begotten, not made.” In other words, the bishops emphasized that the eternal, preexisting Son was not created in time as the Arian-Gnostics taught, but had always coexisted with the Father.

Enter the Holy Spirit

Even though Constantine approved the Nicene Creed and proclaimed it the correct statement of Christian doctrine, not everyone agreed with it. In fact, it would be accurate to say that during most of the fourth century, Gnostic-Arianism was often the dominant viewpoint. It took fifty years or so after the Council of Nicaea before the Nicene Creed was fully accepted as orthodox doctrine. Even then, some bishops and priests found something of a loophole in the Nicene Creed because it had not said much of anything about the Holy Spirit, other than the bland assertion at the end of the Nicene Creed, “And the Holy Spirit.” Some of these “closet Arians,” we might call them, began to say the same things about the Holy Spirit that they had previously said about Jesus. They taught that the Holy Spirit was merely a divine messenger, not co-equal with the Father and the Son in divinity. St. Athanasius, now the bishop of Alexandria, rejected this false teaching on the Spirit, teaching that the Holy Spirit was fully and eternally God.

               But it was really three other Christian thinkers in the East who helped Christians better understand the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. These three thinkers were Bishop Basil of Caesarea (d. 379) (known today as “St. Basil the Great”), his brother, Bishop St. Gregory of Nyssa (d. c.395), and a monk named Gregory of Nazianzus (or “St. Gregory Nazianzen”) (d. 389). Because they all lived in the Roman province of Cappadocia (today’s Turkey, between the Mediterranean and Black Sea), they are commonly known in church history as “the Cappadocians.” The great contribution of the Cappadocians was to define difficult philosophical terms – capable of several different and confusing meanings – precisely. Then they applied the clarified definition of those terms to that most difficult to comprehend of all Christian doctrines—the Trinity. The Cappadocians cleared away a lot of the confusion surrounding the philosophical concepts of “person,” “substance” and “nature,” which had stymied the work of early Christian Apologists in their debates with pagan classicists. The Cappadocians showed that the Trinity could be understood as three divine persons in one divine substance. Contrary to what others were teaching, God did not have three different natures, but only one nature, a divine nature. Yet this divine nature was shared by three persons—Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The Council of Constantinople

Despite what St. Athanasius and the Cappadocians taught, many bishops, who at least professed to believe the Nicene Creed on the co-divinity of Jesus with Father, stirred up confusion and controversy about the Holy Spirit, denying the Spirit’s full Godhead. (The original Nicene Creed of 325 ended with the vague statement, “And the Holy Spirit.”) This group of teachers who denied that the Spirit was of equal divinity with Father and Son, had the engagingly forgettable name, Pneumatomachi (Deniers of the Spirit), and their leader, at least at times, was Bishop Eustathius of Sebaste (c.300–c.377). Because this controversy, too, led to a growing division among Christians, a new Emperor, Theodosius I (reign 379 – 395) convened another council. As a result about one hundred fifty bishops, all from the East, met in Constantinople in the year 381 to settle their differences over the Holy Spirit. The “Creed of Constantinople” resulted from their deliberations. This creed is virtually identical to the Profession of Faith that we have today. The bishops at the Council of Constantinople agreed completely with the Nicene Creed, but they spoke more fully about the Holy Spirit than had the bishops at Nicea, fifty-six years earlier.

               They called the Spirit “the Lord and life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son is together worshiped and glorified, Who spoke through the prophets." Notice that the bishops did not say, “Who proceeds from the Father and the Son...” as we have it today in the Roman Catholic liturgy. As we shall see, these words were added later by the Western church and led to an angry debate between Eastern and Western theologians.

Another Controversy: “Mother of God” or ”Mother of Jesus?”

One would have thought that two great councils and two creeds would have settled all the doctrinal issues in the early church. Such was not the case. Gnostic heretics were still around (as they are today). The Gnostics stirred up a new controversy, even more heated than the Arian controversy had been. It started about the year 430 when Bishop Nestorius of Constantinople (d. c.451) disapproved of the title “Mother of God” as applied to the Virgin Mary. Nestorius reasoned that if Christians were to call Mary “Mother of God,” then Jesus would not be thought of as truly human. Nestorius wanted Mary to be called simply “Mother of Christ.” The problem with this was that as long as anyone could remember, Mary had been called “Mother of God,” and everyday Christians in Constantinople were angry that Bishop Nestorius was trying to change their faith.

               Nestorius had overlooked the fact that Christian doctrine is found within the day-to-day life of the church and its worship as much as it is in the lofty speculations of theologians. Nestorius did not give credit to what Vatican II would later call the sensus fidei, meaning “sense of the faithful.” This intuitive sense of the faith is that of ordinary believers, who in their prayers, devotions and day-to-day faith arrive at theological truths just as certainly as do bishops and popes. The faithful had long called Mary “Mother of God,” and it was offensive to them to have intellectuals in the hierarchy suddenly change this ancient title. Nestorius’s insensitivity to this sensus fidei set off another bitter conflict—calling for yet another council.

               The Council of Ephesus met in the year 431. The debate over Mary’s title was simply the starting point for the “real” debate about the person of Jesus. Was Jesus human or divine, or both? The Council of Ephesus endorsed Mary’s title as Mother of God. It also said that Jesus had both a divine and human nature joined together in one person. Yet, because the two sides at Ephesus were so opposed to each other, the bishops did not write a creed to express in formulaic language what they thought about Jesus’ divine and human nature. A later council would do that.

The Council of Chalcedon

The last of the four great councils of the early church met in the year 451 in Chalcedon (located directly across a narrow sea channel from Constantinople). The purpose of this Council was to issue a creed that would settle matters debated at the Council of Ephesus, twenty years before. More than five hundred bishops attended, including a delegation from the West. These Westerners brought with them a theological treatise written by the bishop of Rome: his Tome, or “great book,” written by Pope Leo I the Great (reign 440–461). Pope Leo the Great (the first pope to be called "the Great") was a highly skilled theologian in his own right. He sent his Tome to Chalcedon as the official statement of doctrine to be adopted by all the bishops in attendance. In effect, Leo’s persuasive theological skills made him appear to many bishops at the Council as the spiritual leader of the bishops of the Eastern Church as well as of the Western Church. While not all the bishops at Chalcedon agreed that Leo’s word was supreme, the majority at the Council nonetheless enthusiastically endorsed Leo’s Tome, exclaiming, “In Leo, Peter has spoken!”

               There was another reason Leo was said to be "Peter," i.e., the "successor" of St. Peter. Leo reigned during the height of the barbarian invasions throughout the developing Church bishoprics to the north of Rome, spearheaded by Atilla the Hun (the Hun king from 433 to 451), who was called "the Scourge of God." Whereas the Huns overran "Gaul," or the future conglomerates of all Western Europe such as France, Germany and the Low Countries, Leo dared to stand alone to stop Atilla as he proceeded to bring his marauding killer-soldiers into Rome. Leo simply showed up at Rome's northernmost "city limits" dressed in his papal robes, which were impressive to the ragamuffin, unwashed and illiterate Huns. Leo's stand led Atilla to think Leo must have been the last emperor of this most prestigious city-state of the greatest empire ever known. Atilla knew enough not to sack Rome and go down in history as a crude and degenerate usurper of "the glory that was Rome." Such historical underpinnings to the Church's ongoing struggle against heresy were important in keeping Christian doctrine alive and flourishing. After all, the Church had to have enough of a functioning bureaucracy from which to direct its struggle against Gnosticism. As that struggle continued, and as Peter's successors gradually came to be seen as the true unifying force and spokesmen for orthodoxy, as at Chalcedon, the Gnostics found themselves devoid of the influence they once had in the Church to speak as if they were actually knowledgeable of Christian doctrine. Their days in Western Europe were numbered, for several centuries, and they ceased fighting with the Church now that the See of St. Peter had strengthened its grasp on Rome and started forming scholarly institutions which could outwit the Gnostics. The heretics simply gave up on out-arguing the western Church on Christian doctrine and solidified their efforts at heresy by regurgitating their Gnostic propaganda in the East.

               Rome's prestige and its intellectual influence impressed and persuaded the bishops at the Council of Chalcedon. The Council voted to follow both what the Council of Ephesus had resolved and what Leo had written in his Tome. The bishops at the Council were thus the conclusive spokesmen for orthodox Christology, proclaiming unanimously that in Jesus the Son of God, two natures, human and divine, were united in one person. Jesus was thus formally declared by the Church to have been both fully human and fully divine. After these many years of struggle against Gnostic-inspired heresy, the early Church had finally achieved an authoritative doctrinal statement about the person of Jesus. The Creed of Chalcedon was accepted by the majority of Christians in both East and West. And whereas the creed used at liturgies to this day is called the "Nicene Creed," in reality it is the "Chalcedonian Creed," which amplified and broadened what the bishops at Nicaea had decided and written 126 years before Chalcedon. However, since the Nicene Creed was produced by the Church's first great anti-heretical Council in 325, followed up and underscored by all the other Councils we've considered above, it is legitimately considered the first major blow to Gnosticism, and thus the founding Council of the early Church's victory over the entire wave of heresy as it developed from the third century to the fifth. Even after Chalcedon, there appeared a look-alike Gnostic-heretical group, called Monophysites (from the Greek for “one nature”), which insisted that Jesus had only a divine nature and not an authentic human nature. The Monophysites were a minority remnant of the Gnostics that had caused all the trouble for the Church, as we have summarized it above. And Gnosticism, even to this day, has never really died off. They formed splinter churches, mostly in the East, and some of these dissenting churches are still with us today, denying how the majority Church of Chalcedon defined the basic Christian doctrine: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Jn 1:14.

Conclusion: The "Old New Age"

In addition to serving as the first major heretical movement within Christianity, defeated by the Church, Gnosticism nonetheless is alive and well in today's secular society. This could be traced to the era called "the 60's," in which many, perhaps a majority of people who were the hippies of that era, have virtually adopted the view of Gnosticism that St. Paul condemned in his Pastoral Letters. For example, in writing to Timothy, Paul analyzes the errors of the false teachings he warns Timothy to avoid, such as, for example, "myths and endless genealogies." This was nothing less than a condemnation of the belief in reincarnation which is fashionable today.

               Similarly, where Paul condemns "speculations" as the fashion for the Gnostics' thinking, many people today lack the ability to use logic and reasoning in verifying their beliefs, and simply spout a summary of incredible beliefs contrary to clear thinking. And an entire industry of "health foods" has arisen as if in keeping with Paul's criticism of the Gnostic-heretics requiring "abstinence from foods that God created." Paul likewise tells Timothy to "[a]void foolish and ignorant debates, for you know that they breed quarrels." Paul must have had a futuristic vision of the "talking heads" on TV and the "pundits" who presume to be commentators by stirring up verbal in-fighting between various groups within society, so that it is difficult not to be condemned for accepting some "-ism," or being some sort of "-ist" that pegs one as hating or being prejudicial to a certain bemoaning group feeling sorry for itself because its multitude of "entitlements" are not provided by the government. And Paul's advice to Timothy is to be "gentle with everyone, able to teach, tolerant, correcting opponents with kindness." Perhaps Paul had a vision of the current political campaigns in America, where one candidate criticized a heroic war veteran who had been taken prisoner in Viet Nam, on the grounds that he couldn't support anyone who had been "captured by the enemy."

               Paul summarizes many of today's lifestyles, when he writes, "People will be self-centered and lovers of money, proud, haughty, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, irreligious, callous, implacable, slanderous, licentious, brutal, hating what is good, traitors, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure..." Are we sure that Paul did not have visions of 21st-Century America? He goes on by saying, "[F]or the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine, but following their own desires and insatiable curiosity will accumulate teachers and will stop listening to the truth and will be diverted to myths." Paul writes similarly to Titus: "Avoid foolish arguments, genealogies, rivalries and quarrels about the law, for they are all useless and futile. After a first and second warning, break off contact with a heretic, realizing that such a person is perverted and sinful and stands self-condemned."

               This welter of societal breakdowns may be traced to the Gnostic heresies of the "Old Age" that bedevil secular society as well as the Church, in today's "wonderful New Age."
--Tony Gilles

This theological reflection courtesy of the parishioners of St Paul Catholic Church in Pensacola, Florida: