Haggling Over What To Believe

Very few persons who faithfully toddle to church in search of spiritual guidance in some man-formulated faith system ever bother themselves to ponder how God revealed the particulars that were to serve as their faith system’s beliefs, values and ceremonial activities. The fact that organized faith systems are structured as authoritarian conglomerates is typified in the manner by which their creeds, tenets and doctrines came to be standardized as “holy guidance.” The means by which the “fathers” received divine direction from the Omnipotent Being may seem a bit illogical, but hey, God moves in mysterious ways. Mostly the process of gaining godly instruction on things like tenets, doctrine and the theatrical regimentation promoted as being preferred by God came when representatives of the faith system met to haggle over such things.

Christianity, for example, came into formation in Rome (not in the “Holy Land”) and the principles of empire-building served as the example for authoritarian management when the Jesus cult began to attract a broad array of seekers (c. 75 CE). There was no such word as “church” in that early timeframe (despite the claims that Peter established a “church” in Rome): there were ecclesiae (from Greek, meaning a duly summoned assembly but nothing that could be considered a specific center of organization. That developed spasmodically and arose due to the various forms of interpretation which various satellite groups accepted concerning the early cult writings Mark and Matthew). Serious attempts at establishing an authorized interpretation began in the general timeframe 84-96 when the NT book Acts of the Apostles was written. With the character of Paul introduced into the spiritual scuffle the original focus on the Jesus cult was skillfully shifted away from spiritual teaching attributed to the Jew Jesus on how to lead a moral life and shifted to more mundane issues such as establishing an organizational structure as a faith system. And new writings would continue to appear up through 135. The NT book Hebrews was actually the last NT book written (c. 137), not Revelation.

There were numerous “councils” throughout the early couple of centuries in attempts to standardize the set of views for Christian faith followers, but a conformist or orthodox set of rules of belief continued to evade the headstrong fathers. It should be noted in association with this, the cross still was not the popular symbol of what would become the Christain faith. Among the early members of the movement the prominent symbol was of two arced lines resembling a fish, which was accepted as being appropriate for the new Age Of Pisces (calculated to have begun c. 60 BCE). This and many other early perceptions would get put aside over time, primarily in the early part of the fourth century with the first of seven scrappy councils concerning what was to be believed. The doctrine and tenets that are subscribed to today as Christianity were debated and argued over, and whatever the majority of “fathers” grudgingly came to agree upon has influenced every branch of Christianity that split off from the initial movement.

The First Council of Nicea was held in 325, which sought to bridge the argument over Christ’s divinity. A Greek ecclesiastic and theologian, Arius (died 336), taught that if Jesus was the son of God, then there had to be a time when Jesus did not exist. This view spread rapidly through Christian communities and had been condemned by a council of 100 Egyptian and Libyan bishops in 321. An opponent, Athanasius of Alexandria (293?-373), on the other hand, taught that the godhead was composed of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. These conflicting interpretations prompted the call for the Council of Nicea in 325, which determined that Athanasius’ assessment—that Father, Son and Holy Spirit—were fully equal, and so was to be considered the correct precept. Athanasius thereafter became bishop of Alexandria about 326, and of course is regarded as a “saint” in Catholic lore.

The next council to decide what is now expected to be believed as holy truth took place in 381, and is known as the First Council of Constantinople. Debates over the Trinity aspect of the godhead still disturbed the Christian world, with many groups still denying the full divinity of “Holy Spirit.” This called for clarification, and the outcome of this rowdy council was a more expanded version of the stance that had been taken at Nicea. This makes for some confusion, for what is spoken of as the Nicene Creed is in reality the form that was hammered out at Constantinople.

With the Trinity version then thought to be set in theological concrete, the next major debate arose over what may be termed Christology—or the relationship between Jesus’ divine natures and his human manifestation. This debate necessitated the third major council, the Council of Ephesus in 431. The variant teachings of Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople (428-431), concerning the nature of Jesus rocked the orthodox Catholic doctrine. Nestorius taught that the divine and the human nature of Jesus acted as one, but these natures were not joined to compose a unity of a single individual. This meant that the Virgin Mary could not and should not be presented as the “mother of God,” reasoning that if Jesus was born of a mortal woman then Jesus’ divine nature (Christhood) could only be derived from the Father. The Council, under the leadership of Bishop Cyril of Alexandria, who taught that the divine and human natures were fully united, condemned Nestorius’ precept as “heresy.” Cyril’s interpretation of heavenly things triumphed, and Nestorius’ followers were then heavily persecuted, and forced to seek refuge in Persia, India, China and Mongolia. Bishop Cyril had long been fanatical in his spiritual interpretations, as revealed in 415 when, as bishop or Alexandria, he had acted as ringleader behind the murder of the popular Greek philosopher, the beautiful and wise woman named Hypatia. Despite this fault the church awarded Cyril the title of “saint.”

The fourth recognized council, the Council of Chalcedon, was called in 451; its primary purpose was to reverse the views of a previous council, the Second Council of Ephesus which became snubbed by the church as having been a “gangster synod.” That unrecognized council, which had been led by Dioscuros of Alexandria, had also revolved around the nature of Christ. After bad-tempered debates the Council of Chalcedon managed to weld a theological concept of Christ’s nature into a prescribed belief that Christ’s nature was to be considered both fully divine and fully human. That just happened to be the view in this timeframe preferred by Pope Leo I.

The fifth major council is considered to be the Second Council of Constantinople, which was called in 553. Christology was still a thorn in the faith’s posterior, making it difficult for orthodoxy to sit comfortably upon the seat of “revealed” wisdom. Called to session by Byzantine Emperor Justinian, the emperor promoted a Monophysite tenet (doctrine held by Coptic and Syrian Christians) in condemning the Nestorians. This council condemned the Nestorian writings, but this, unfortunately, only created a new schism in the Western Church.

Faith rattled along with continuing skirmishes for another 127 years, and then in 680 the Christological war flared up again. Central to the debates was still the issue of Christ’s natures. To pacify seekers in search of what was proper to believe, the weary Byzantine emperors attempted to soothe things with the philosophy that regardless of Christ’s natures they could at least still agree that the savior had a single will. Predictably that attempt at compromise did not fly very well and was held by many to skate along the brink of heresy. The Third Council of Constantinople in 680 thus wound up proclaiming that the official belief was therefore to be that Christ possessed not only two natures but also two wills.

The seventh ecumenical council concerning what was to be considered the orthodox guiding principles of Christian faith is known as the Second Council of Nicea in 787. In this timeframe (720-787) the dispute tearing at the fabric of Christian faith (then known as Catholic) concerned the use of icons and images in sacred places. This gathering of 375 bishops, the majority of whom were Byzantine, was convened by Empress Irene of the eastern Roman Empire. Despite fervent objections from iconoclasts, the Byzantine-dominated council validated the veneration of images and approved their restoration in churches throughout the Roman Empire. The little catch allowing for these graven images was that such depictions were to be venerated, and worship was to be directed solely to God.

There have been, of course, many more councils called since these, but these seven early council debates established the basic belief strategy that even today continues to color all the varieties of Christian faith systems.

13 Responses to “Haggling Over What To Believe”

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