Monday, April 30, 2012
Church Fathers and Councils
If we think that the Church has problems today, or that bad behavior is the specialty of contemporary Christian leaders, we should delve a bit into the past. On the other hand, if we tend to equate the ancient fathers with an idea of a ‘golden age’ of Christianity, or think that their writings and opinions are to be held uncritically superior to ours, we should think again. C. S. Lewis observed that ‘we are still the early Christians.’ Every Church father, just as every Christian pastor, teacher or writer, still has to be examined in the light of the scriptural Truth, which remains the source and measure of the Christian ‘tradition.’
We’ve heard, with unthinking amusement, of the incident at the Council of Nicæa where Nicholas, the bishop of Myra, slapped or punched the 80 year old presbyter Arius, whose teaching about the non-deity of Christ was the reason for calling the council. Supposedly he was placed under house arrest until some of the bishops had a common dream that made them release him and restore him to the Council. I read in another place that this story is found for the first time in a 14th century Latin manuscript. To me, that smacks of tale-spinning, as do many of the other tales told of the saints in West and East.
Be that as it may, violence, at least in speech, was not rare among some of the Church fathers. An excerpt from the authentic transcript of the Council of Chalcedon follows. The moment is that of the Imperial officers ordering that Theodoret, the bishop of Kars, should enter the assembly:
“And when the most reverend bishop Theodoret entered, the most reverend the bishops of Egypt, Illyria, and Palestine shouted out—‘Mercy upon us! The faith is destroyed! The canons of the Church excommunicate him! Turn him out! Turn out the teacher of Nestorius!’ On the other hand, the most reverend the bishops of the East, of Thrace, of Pontus, and of Asia, shouted out—‘We were compelled [at the former Council] to subscribe our names to blank papers! We were scourged into submission! Turn out the Manichæans! Turn out the enemies of Flavian! Turn out the adversaries of the faith!’ Dioscorus, the most reverend bishop of Alexandria said—‘Why is Cyril to be turned out? It is he whom Theodoret has condemned!’ The most reverend the bishops of the East shouted out—‘Turn out the murderer Dioscorus! Who knows not the deeds of Dioscorus?’ …The most reverend the bishops of Egypt, Illyria, and Palestine, shouted out—‘Long life to the Empress!’ The most reverend the bishops of the East shouted out—‘Turn out the murderers!’ The most reverend the bishops of Egypt shouted out—‘The Empress turned out Nestorius! Long life to the Catholic Empress! The Orthodox synod refuses to admit Theodoret!’
“Theodoret then being at last received by the Imperial officers, and taking his place, the most reverend bishops of the East shouted out—‘Axios! Axios! [He is worthy!]’ The most reverend the bishops of Egypt shouted out—‘Don’t call him a bishop! He is no bishop! Turn out the fighter against God! Turn out the Jew!’ The most reverend the bishops of the East shouted out—‘The Orthodox for the synod! Turn out the rebels! Turn out the murderers!’ The most reverend the bishops of Egypt—‘Turn out the enemy of God! Turn out the defamer of Christ! Long life to the Empress! Long life to the Emperor! Long life to the Catholic Emperor! Theodoret condemned Cyril! If we receive Theodoret, we excommunicate Cyril!’ At this point the Imperial commissioners who were present put a stop to the clamor, as unworthy a meeting of Christian bishops.”
It’s really ironic how these bishops are described repeatedly with the honorific ‘the most reverend,’ in view of their atrocious behavior. After reading this account, it’s easy to see that blood had a low boiling point in that era, even among shepherds of the flock. Admittedly, the Council of Chalcedon was one of the more violent ones, and most historians consider the 1st Council of Nicæa much more civil. Yet even there, what we have from letters written at the time, indicate that tempers flared.
And why not? The understanding of the content of the revelation of Jesus Christ, who He is, was at stake. Moreover, we are so far removed from that time that we can’t be sure, always, that we’re understanding what we read in those old books. Still, it does seem that many of the things that were debated, argued about, and even fought over back then have little bearing on the gospel, on the good news.
It’s good that we look at what the Church fathers said and did, what they taught, how they lived, and how they died. They were people like us, living in a culture not really too unlike our own, facing very similar social and ethical challenges. To their glory they laid down the foundations of our common orthodox faith, to their shame they quibbled and sometimes nit-picked each other to death over trifles, or over speculations on divine things for which there was never any warrant in scripture.
The contemporary Orthodox Church sometimes idolizes them, even seems to put them above scripture, while quietly shuffling their misdeeds under the rug, but the fact is they were humans just like us, their squabbling no different than modern denominational disagreements, and yet, underneath it all, they had a common faith that they could have practiced in peace and love, had they put away the works of the flesh.
Yes, faith in God and in His Christ is one thing, and faith as a body of doctrine quite another, yet we use the same word for both. This has been largely responsible for the decline of Christianity throughout the ages, and especially now, when we are living not in a post-Christian age, but deservedly in a post-church one.
Church is people in Christ. We can institutionalise ‘church’ just as church has institutionalized ‘faith.’ We think we do this to preserve both, yet we do exactly the opposite.
Christianity is not and never was perpetuated by institutions, only by what C. S. Lewis so aptly called ‘good infection.’ In our studies of the Bible and the Church fathers, we should never forget that it is only God and His Christ, Jesus, and what He has won for us, that matters.
at 6:57 AM