Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Jesus of Dogma

This is the second lecture in the Lenten series: Jesus from Synagogue to Cathedral

After the New Testament

The latest writings of the New Testament may be as late as 100 C.E. (some would say even later), and the following century is not a period that is bursting with historical data. Nevertheless, there are enough writings in the period 125-250 C.E. to give us a fairly clear picture of the development of the Church in the first three or four generations of the increasing number of people (almost entirely Gentiles) who followed Jesus. The goal of this lecture is to try to understand how the picture of Jesus with which we leave the New Testament period at the end of the first century becomes the portrait we find by the end of the sixth century C.E., firmly painted by a series of doctrinal statements: an ‘official’ series of Creeds and Definitions, but also a vast body of theological, writings. By the end of the process, (though the very concept of the process ending is a matter of serious contemporary debate), these writings were divided, in general, into two categories: ‘orthodox’ (from orthos, straight and doxa, opinion) and ‘heretical’ (from hairesis - choosing [a peculiar view]).

Two Pictures

Briefly to anticipate the conclusion, the two pictures are different: some would say totally different, others somewhat different, but clearly different. The crucial question, that has been asked increasingly urgently since the start of the critical study of the early church is how far are we bound by the dogmatic definitions of the early centuries: how final and unquestionable, that is, do we consider the process, the end result of which, was the “orthodox” portrayal of Christ as the “second Person” of the Trinity, of “one substance” with the Father; as fully human and fully divine and yet a single person?

Two Natures – One Person

Just to give the ‘feel’ of what we might call the dogmatic portrait of Jesus (though, significantly “Christ” is used much more than Jesus), here is a very brief quotation from the statement that is regarded as the definitive, final position of the Catholic Church on the person of Christ, the Definition of Chalcedon of 451 C.E.:

We all unanimously teach (here the Bishops insert virtually the first part of the Nicene Creed, and then go on, He is the)…one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, made known in two nature without confusion, without change, without division, without separation, the difference of the natures being by no means removed because of the union, but the property of each nature being preserved and coalescing in one person (prosopon) and one individual being (hypostasis)*1 – not parted or divided into two prosopa, but one and the same son, only-begotten, divine Word, the Lord Jesus Christ.

One might contrast this with the scene in Mk. 2.23ff where we see a Rabbi going for a walk with a few of his disciples, or even with Lk. 24.13ff, where a few days after the crucifixion, two disciples are again walking in the country. Jesus, as a stranger, walks with them and appears again in a rabbinic role, “[B]eginning with Moses…he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” Moreover, Luke implies that it was in the common meals they held that they became aware of the presence of Jesus, not as dead, but as risen.

More than a Prophet

By the end of the N.T. period, as I noted last time, Jesus was remembered as a, friend, a Rabbi and wise man whose teachings presented new possibilities of the human relationship with God. Above all, he was seen as God’s chosen agent in the battle with the evil powers, as a defender of the poor and marginalized, and as one who had the charisma to implant in people, the assurance of God’s healing and forgiveness. But we also saw that by the 80s of the first century, Christians were accepting Jesus as more than a Prophet and Rabbi: they sensed that he was adopted by, or exhibited, or shared in the Divine; (all these positions were held and debated in the early centuries). As early as 52 or 53 C.E. Paul could end a letter to his converts in Corinth with the Aramaic words, written in Greek characters for the sake of his readers: Μαρανα θα, Marana Tha, Come Lord, a prayer for the speedy return of Jesus, already addressed as “Lord” (Kurios).

Regula Fidei

This is still worlds apart from the language of the Chalcedonian Definition, and it seems to have been the kind of non-dogmatic view of Jesus that prevailed well into the third century. It is certain that a body of oral tradition existed before any of the NT was written and it is clear, from the references we have in the years 100-250 that this same body of tradition continued alongside the written scriptures for some while. In writing about tradition, Richard Hanson notes that several of the early Church Fathers, particularly Irenaeus and Tertullian in the west and Origen in the east speak of what they call the rule of faith (regula fidei) as clearly distinct from the written records. Elsewhere, he writes, “During” [the years 150 to around 285], “it was the ‘rule of faith that expressed orthodox belief in a fluid and undogmatic way”.*2
This approach was probably important for the emergence of a structured Ministry of Bishops, Priests and Deacons, that we find in place by the beginning of the 4th century, because a custodian of the tradition was needed, and the local Bishop became the one who was entrusted to receive the tradition and to pass it on, untouched, so to speak, to the next generation of the faithful.

Emergence of Hierarchy

The changing view of ministry in the Church is another aspect of the critical study I have referred to several times. The ‘orthodox’ view had been that the orders of ministry (Bishops, Priests & Deacons) were put in place by Jesus.
The Prayer Book of the Episcopal Church has a “Preface to the Ordination Rites” that reflects the scholarship of the last two centuries, but leaves wiggle room when it says: “[S]ince the time of the New Testament, three distinct orders … have been characteristic of Christ’s holy catholic Church.” (p. 510). “Since” is probably purposely ambiguous: it more naturally means after, which would be the consensus of most non-R.C. Church Historians; but it leaves room for conservatives from Catholic to Charismatic, who insist on the pre-critical view.

Contemporary Emphasis on Christ of Faith

It is interesting that this is not Jesus’ church, but Christ’s holy Catholic Church. This seems to be just one very small example of the way the Jesus of history has often been swallowed up by the Christ of faith, a process that began in the 5th century and continues today (though often hidden – I call it “crypto-monophysitism”!) For example, almost any newspaper report of an amazing escape, a totally unexpected recovery from sickness, or even a face appearing in your pancake can be reported as divine interventions or manifestations, attributed to Christ.

Move to Definition

In a way, the emergence of a systemized ministry can be seen as the early signs of what was to follow, when it was felt necessary by philosophically minded theologians to provide a kind of blueprint of the ‘inner’ workings of God (in the Nicene creed), and to explain the mechanics of Jesus’ two natures (defined at Chalcedon). The ministry of the Church moved from the picture we get in the NT to greater definition, by the end of the process consisting of seven orders: Door keeper, Lector, Exorcist & Subdeacon leading to the three major orders. (The list of the "minor orders" varies from time to time and place to place).
In the New Testament, we hear of Apostles, Prophets, Exorcists, Elders (the Greek word is πρεσβυτερος – Presbyter) Deacons, and, in the very latest strands of the NT, coming from around 95 C.E we have about five references to episcopoi – literally ‘overseers’ - bishop, a word that comes into the language from the Greek via late Latin, (e)biscopus. Of much more importance than is often allowed was the order of Prophets, and, indeed, some Prophetesses. A mid-second century book called The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, (known as The Didache), contains some detailed rules for welcoming a Prophet to the local community, warning that a stay of over three to four days may indicate a charlatan.


Perhaps the earliest move to tighten up on belief came when the Prophet Montanus (c.156) led a charismatic, apocalyptic movement which the authorities considered dangerous since its Prophets and Prophetesses uttered “words of Jesus” which were taken as authoritative additions to the Gospels. Another straw in the wind was that the movement received condemnation by Zephyrinus, the Bishop of Rome (198-120), in the early 3rd century, a foreshadowing of the growth of papal power. The pattern was set that the preaching or writing of speculative thinkers often triggered tighter definition of the rather loose “rule of faith”. Another, less pleasant practice also emerged. It is one with which we, having endured an interminable Presidential campaign, are all too unhappily familiar with, consisting of innuendoes, exaggerations and downright lies. It was not difficult to find mud to sling at Montanus and his followers. The genders mixed freely in ecstatic outdoor meetings - (Hellenistic society was remarkably puritanical about such public meetings) - and it was easy to suggest that spiritual ecstasy soon led to physical heights of sexual passion.

Fathers & Heretics

Among the main figures who raised questions in the fourth and fifth centuries were Arius, a Presbyter in Alexandria and Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople in the 430s, This is to mention but two from a cast of many dozens. Required reading in Seminary for this period of Church History was Dr. Prestige’s Fathers and Heretics; colloquially known as, “Dads & Cads”. It takes three hundred pages to get through the ranks the of the boat-rocking heretics and the defending ranks of the-truth-is-absolute-and-we-have-it orthodox. Still, these two heresiarchs stand as the immediate (but by no means only) cause of two violent controversies. Among the notable defenders of orthodoxy, by far the most effective, and since he led the winning side, also the best known was Athanasius; born at the very end of the third century, he became Bishop and Patriarch of Alexandria in 328.
The majority of biographies of Athanasius see him as the one who saved Christianity, and it is certainly true that his role in the Council of Nicaea was pivotal. There has been, however, a growing appreciation of just how big a role power politics played in the development of the central dogmatic statements of the time, and Athanasius was certainly a major player in the game.

Some Background

The third century was not a bumper time for the empire. Peter Brown writes:

“After AD 238, all classes in the Roman world had to face up…to the unpleasant realities of empire. Between 238 and 270, bankruptcy, political fragmentation and recurrent defeats of large Roman armies laid bare the superb nonchalance on which the old system of government had been based”.*3

He goes on to point out that a few strong Generals restored the empire over which Diocletian reigned from 285 to 305: much tighter, centralized control of the Provinces and an enlarged bureaucracy led a badly shaken society back to order. It is, perhaps, noteworthy that the rescue from a failed state is not infrequently the result of a military dictatorship: one thinks of the Weimar Republic and several more recent S. American countries.

Persecution of Diocletian

Before the rise of Diocletian, the Church had been growing quietly: “The Christian church enjoyed complete tolerance between 260 and 302”.*4
Though Christians were still a small minority, people were aware of the growing power of Bishops and their congregations, and many in the empire blamed the terrible crisis that had overtaken them on the increasing failure of civic duties, the failure to offer the ancient and proper devotion to the immemorial gods.

So it was not surprising that Diocletian unleashed a bitter persecution, perhaps, the first such total effort. The persecution failed, though while it lasted a large number of biblical manuscripts were confiscated and destroyed. In 312 the Emperor Constantine was converted to the new religion, convinced that the Chi/Rho sign he had seen in the sky was Christ’s signal to him of victory in return for conversion. This event was, perhaps, the most momentous (some would say “disastrous”) turn of events in the whole history of the Christian church. The scattered autonomous communities, each led by their chief Pastor, the local Bishop, had, in effect become a State Church.

Nicaea and Chalcedon

I need to turn now to the two main controversies that raged in the church in the 4th and 5th centuries. What mattered to most Christians was the closeness of the community, the bonding of brothers and sisters, and, above all, the bonding of the community as a whole with Jesus. The weekly Eucharist reaffirmed the presence of the risen Lord and gave assurance of coming close to God. It was also the time when offerings were made for the poor and sick of the Christian community; this was seen as one of the striking characteristics of the new communities in a society where such concern, in spite of Societies and Guilds for specific groups, was largely absent. Such involvement was much more personal and intense than anything converts had experienced in the rites of the old religion dedicated to the gods of the city or a particular locality, but the finer points of theology were in the hands of the theologians, and before Nicaea, the fluidity I noted at the beginning remained the norm for the laity and many clergy. Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea (263-340), for example, held views very like those we noted at the end of the NT period. Peter Brown writes, “[The One] High God…had reached down to earth, to make his commands plain through a series of privileged representatives of His will, of which Christ had been the greatest.”*5 Still, it was normal to pray to Jesus and it was felt that he was more than a mere ‘representative’.

Demand for Clarity

These positions, however, were being questioned: briefly the issue was that philosophically minded theologians began to ask, “What precisely is the relationship between the Lord Jesus and the One God? If he is divine, how do we escape the charge of polytheism? But if he is merely a Prophet, does not that leave the One High God distant and not part of human vicissitudes?” It was an Alexandrian Presbyter, Arius, who brought things to a head by teaching something very like the views of Eusebius. At this point the great Athanasius entered the fray and he was to hold center stage in the controversy for over thirty years. Constantine was not a little irritated to find that his new “spiritual” arm of the state, so to speak, was rent by conflict. This is not what he expected, and he summoned the Bishops to meet in the city of Nicaea, and thus what is known as the First Ecumenical Council came into being. After weeks of wrangling and acrimony, the Bishops produced a document that they said laid out the faith always held, and, for the future, was always to be held by the Church.

Like God - The iota that split an Empire

Not all signed it, and those who refused were made aware of the Emperor’s displeasure, often by banishment. The minutes of that Bishops' meeting in 325, after several more decades of dissension, discussion and change, became the Creed of Constantinople, published in 381: this is what is generally called the Nicene Creed today. Gone was the old fluidity. God was defined in philosophical terms by the use of the Greek word homoousios - same substance (in the Latin una substantia, one substance); it was, indeed, the use of this unscriptural term that caused so much dissension, but it was felt to be the only way to exclude Arius’ teaching that Jesus was only a high-powered messenger/prophet.

A substantial body of Christians was excluded by this new standard. They wanted to say that Jesus was like God (not homoousios, but homoiousios, a minute difference that led to the remark that this was ‘an iota that split an Empire'). Semi-Arianism, as it was called, became almost the dominant form of Christianity in northern Europe as the Visigoths were converted.

Christological Question

Having, established the full divinity of Jesus, it was inevitable that questions would arise about how he could be fully human and divine at the same time, and conflicting views led to the Council of Chalcedon, which insisted that it was necessary to believe that Jesus was fully human, fully divine, but one 'person': in the end, however the Council did not (could not?) explain how this could be.*6 The view that his “central person”, so to speak, was divine and that his earthly body was temporary, or a mere shell for the time of his ministry, was roundly condemned, but that has not, unhappily, prevented it from forming a very powerful undertow to Christian thinking and practice ever since. (see above on “crypto-monophysitism”). The Council also aimed to exclude once and for all the teaching of Nestorius who was thought to consider Jesus as no more than a super prophet.


Perhaps one of the most unfortunate results of these controversies was the suppressing of alternative ideas, and giving to human formulations the status of unalterable, divinely approved blueprints of the inner workings of the Godhead: moreover, they are formulations tied to classical philosophical views, and are strongly culturally conditioned.

My experience has been that the vast majority of believers still function more as was the norm in the 2nd to 4th centuries, where Jesus is experienced as the One who walks with us, brings us close to God and understands “the changes and chances of this mortal life”: One who was adopted by, or exhibited, or shares in the Divine. All these positions are more or less heretical, though it is comforting to note that St. Luke seems to espouse the notion that Jesus was an “adopted Son”.
I always used to warn my Seminary students never to put more than five words together on the subject of the doctrine of the Trinity since if they said more, they would surely fall into heresy, and we know that there are heresy hunters everywhere.


1. In the period that the Creeds were emerging, endless confusion was caused by a group of Greek words taken from philosophical writings: substance – ousia; an individual thing/person – hypostasis; person – persona Lat; prosopon Grk, and others like ‘nature’ and ‘form’.
The confusion was confounded because of growing separation of E. and W. resulting in a smaller number of bilingual theologians: St. Augustine, born in mid 4th century, for example, could not read Greek. The situation was not helped by the fact that the history and etymology of each word shows variations of use by different classical authors.

A further cause of misunderstanding and conflict between the theologians of the East and those in the West was the use of the two words substantia & hypostasis which are etymologically equivalent: ≈ standing beneath, i.e. the essence of a thing, person. In Greek, however, hypostasis was regularly used to mean an individual thing, person.
Before Nicaea, the West had settled on the formula, una substantia, tres personae
; so, when a Greek spoke of three hypostases, to Latin ears this sounded like saying there are three Gods (tres substantiae).
See The Oecumenical Documents of the Faith, pp. 20ff. ed. T.H. Bindley, London. 4th Edition, 1950

2. Dict. of Christian Theol. pp. 341b & 246a. Tertullian (c.160-220); Irenaeus c.130-200); Origen (186-255)

3. The Rise of Western Christendom. Oxford 1996 p.19

4. Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity London 1971 p.68

5. Rise of W. Christendom p.71

6. The use of the word 'person' (persona, prosopon) is a further considerable complication in any contemporary efforts to make sense of Chalcedon. The modern sense of 'personality' is quite absent in the classical use; indeed, the Latin per-sona has its origin in the mask of the dramatic actor - 'sounding through'.


Anonymous said...

In this blog Simon wrote, "It is interesting that this is not Jesus’ church, but Christ’s holy Catholic Church. This seems to be just one very small example of the way the Jesus of history has often been swallowed up by the Christ of faith, a process that began in the 5th century and continues today (though often hidden – I call it “crypto-monophysitism”!) For example, almost any newspaper report of an amazing escape, a totally unexpected recovery from sickness, or even a face appearing in your pancake can be reported as divine interventions or manifestations, attributed to Christ." What I find most interesting is the fact that newspapers still report stories that amaze readers, but after a day or two, it is old news. The fever dies down. The subjects fade into oblivion. This did not happen with Jesus. One might assume that those who wanted his story squashed should have been successful. After all, there were many more powerful people working against Jesus and his followers than the number working for him. So who was it or why was it that Jesus' teachings and reputation grew? Was it because of the gospel stories? Was it Paul's work and ministry? Was it a combination of preaching, teaching, evangelizing? No matter what we may think or how much research we may do or how much we may read and learn, we cannot escape the fact that the Jesus story has endured into the 21st century. I wonder what this means?

Canon Simon Mein said...

I do not normally allow publication of Anonymous comments, but I thought that this anon comment interesting and pertinent.
It raises several very important questions and calls for some careful consideration of the history of the growth of Christianity in the first millennium, e.g.the persistence of 'pagan' practices well into that period (see the Peter Brown books which I note).

"The Jesus story has endured", perhaps ought to read "Many Jesus stories have endured, and, indeed, continue to proliferate".

Anyway, Anon., thank you for a thought-provoking comment.

Simon Mein