Monday, April 28, 2014

First Council of Ephesus (431)

Bishops met in present-day Turkey in the summer of 431 to address Nestorianism. Nestorius was the Patriarch of Constantinople who was teaching that Mary is the Christotokos but not Theotokos. Ironically (or maybe not), the council met at the Church of Mary in Ephesus. Nestorius believed his views orthodox and supported the convening of the council. Another issue was Pelagianism, the belief that original sin did not stain humanity. Pelagianism states that humans are capable of living a sinless life without divine intervention.

The council ruled that Mary is indeed Theotokos, bearer of God. Christ is fully human and fully divine. Pelagianism was also condemned. Also, the Nicene Creed was confirmed (again) as the statement of faith for the Church.

There were many followers of Nestorianism that schismed as a result of the council. One was the Persian Church, which under persecution by Zoroastrians, aligned with the more local group so as to appear less influenced by foreign powers. In 1994, the Common Christological Declaration affirmed the shared views between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of East.

Nestorianism sounds like the focus is on Mary, but as always, Mary points to Jesus. To deny that Mary is Theotokos is to deny Christ’s divinity. Nestorius’ argument separated the incarnate Christ from the divine Logos, making him fully human at one point and fully divine at another. I think this is an easy mistake to make, and unless specifically addressing dualism, I don’t see how the belief affects other parts of theology. There are still churches that follow the Nestorian teaching, as indicated by the Common Christological Declaration that just took place 20 years ago.

There is still Pelagianism present in many churches, although today, many go further to deny original sin in any form. Variants of it can be found in churches that reject infant baptism. But Pelagian ideas also state simply living a moral life is what gets you into heaven, not Christ’s resurrection. This idea of Pelagianism is still found when people equate being a good person with earning salvation.

Monday, April 21, 2014

First Council of Constantinople (381)

St. Gregory Nazianzus

Emperor Theodosius I called for a council of bishops in May of 381 to reach consensus on various issues. One goal was to end the Arian controversy which, despite being named heretical at the Council of Nicaea, continued to have large support. In fact, Constantinople was run by a large Arian faction. In the other extreme, a reactionary group had adopted Apollinarism, which suggested that Christ was fully divine, but not human.

There was also the issue of the ordination of Maximus as Bishop of Constantinople. Maximus was a Cynic who professed to be a convert. His conversion was suspect. Under dubious circumstances and through support of distant Egyptian bishops, Maximus had been consecrated as bishop of Constantinople. Many people, including the emperor, doubted Maximus’ faith and political motives. 

The council condemned fractions that denied the Nicene Creed: Arians, Apollinarians, and Macedonians. Constantinople was honored as “New Rome,” with the note that the bishop of Constantinople “shall have the prerogative of honor after the Bishop of Rome.” Maximus’ ordination was not recognized, and Gregory Nazianzus was installed. 

Arianism and Apollinarism both denied one of Christ’s dual natures as fully human and fully divine. The Macedonians denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Clearly, defining the Trinity was a continuing problem. Even 350 (or 2000) years after Christ, they weren’t sure what to make of him. Even within the realm of Tritarianism, I think some of us focus more on Jesus the man or Jesus the divine; it is difficult to sit comfortably in paradox.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Gott ist Tot

In Star Trek, the Klingons are a warrior and spiritual people. They have a religion that includes gods and an afterlife (think Valhalla). Yet they no longer worship their gods. In Klingon lore, the people killed their creators. As Worf says, “Our gods are dead.” 

In 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we killed him.” And it’s been misrepresented ever since. I won’t try to fully unpack the statement, because I really don’t know much Nietzsche. But really it has more to do with culture and how we approach concepts of God, creating theology in our own image. Yet, the phrase is shocking and sticks in the mind. I want to refute it, but after Good Friday, I can’t. 

In 1966, Time magazine asked, “Is God Dead?” This time, the phrase was addressing the rise of atheism. This year, a (poorly written by the looks of the trailer) movie came out titled God’s Not Dead. It’s about a Christian student building the case for the proof of God after a challenge from his anti-theist philosophy professor. Judging for the trailer, it’s as predicable and cheesy as you would expect from such a plotline. 

I guess the Christian response is supposed to be “of course God isn’t dead!” He’s the creator of all that’s living. He’s eternal. Alpha, omega, without beginning or end. And yet, here it is, the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. The time of the crucified Christ. Our God is a god who experiences death. Christ became man through the Incarnation. He suffered death and was buried. Holy Saturday is a tricky time. We know the ending, and it is good. But for a day we must forget that we know. We must mourn. We must look to a future with a body decaying in a tomb and try to make sense of a creation without a creator. We must acknowledge the destruction we’ve caused. God is dead. We killed him.

"God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves?” -Neitzche

Monday, April 14, 2014

First Council of Nicaea (325)

The Council of Nicaea was the first ecumenical council, and it was big one. Emperor Constantine, a recent convert to Christianity, called for the council in the summer of 325. Bishops from all over the empire as well as Asia, Persia, Palestine, Egypt, and Greece met at Nicaea. St. Athanasius counted that 318 bishops attended, as well as several hundred priests and deacons. Constantine opened the session but did not participate in any of the doctrinal matters. He real interest was uniformity across the empire.

Constantine called the council for bishops to settle on a universal statement on the relationship between God the Father and Jesus. There were two predominate camps at the time. Trinitarians believed that the Father and the Son were both God, separate persons of the same substance. Arians, named after the Libyan priest Arius, believed that the Father was greater than the Son. It also called into question Christ’s divinity by suggesting that there was a time before which Christ was created. Arius was not the only person with nontrinitarian beliefs, but he was the one who defended those beliefs at the council. 
The council also addressed the dating of Easter. Originally, Easter was observed according to the Jewish calendar, falling on 14 Nisan. However, as Christianity grew away from Judaism, it was determined that Easter should not rely on the Jewish calendar and that it should always fall on a Sunday. Different areas found different ways of determining the date for Easter, meaning that the Church did not celebrate it on the same day. 

On the Trinitarian issue, Arianism was condemned. The Nicene Creed was developed to explicitly clarify the Church’s position on basic beliefs, including the consubstantialism of the Father and Son. The Creed continues to be the basic statement of faith of the Church almost 1,700 years later. The council also determined that the Church should have a universal way to determine the date of Easter. However, it did not present a calculation, so different areas continued to follow different methods. The East and West continue to celebrate Easter on different dates (except when they happen to fall on the same day, like this year). The council also ruled on some finer points of the priesthood (age of ordination, marriage rules, grounds for excommunication). This doesn’t seem to be the result of a certain debate, but was perhaps brought about by the bishops getting together and seeing the differences of protocol between sees. 

While Trinitarianism was widely accepted, Arianism continued to have support, mainly in the Germanic north through the sixth century. As a heresy, it grows and fades, but has never really gone away. The Nicene Creed is still used to this day as a basic doctrinal threshold, but there are still groups that disagree over the Trinitarian ruling of Nicaea. Most notably are Jehovah’s Witnesses and Oneness Pentecostals.

This was the council were St. Nicholas infamously punched Arius. While I think it’s good to note that we should keep disagreements nonviolent, it’s still fun to think of badass Santa Claus. After all, there’s always that one heretic that you just want to punch in the face.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Part of the Crowd

As the priest mentioned this morning, Palm Sunday is a little schizophrenic. It starts with joyful waving of palms, but we don’t get to dwell on Jesus’ donkey ride into Jerusalem. We sing, “Hosanna!” But then we immediately turn to the passion and cry, “Crucify him!” There is a reason to the contrast. Everything is happening too fast; it’s confusing and jarring and uncomfortable. And it’s supposed to be. How quickly the crowd turned from “Hosanna” to “Crucify him.” 

The reading of the passion is done dramatically, with a reader representing Pilate, the priest representing Jesus, and the congregation representing the crowd. We participate in yelling “Crucify him.” The words fall out of my mouth, and there is no denying my culpability. We are all guilty in the passion. Humanity is guilty. We are all responsible for the arrest and death of Jesus. How do we get from praising Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem to calling for his death in less than a week? 

The word “hosanna” means “save us” or “save now.” It is a request for salvation. The Jews believed the Messiah would be a royal warrior, a triumphant leader who would liberate them from Roman rule. But he wasn’t that kind of leader. He was a humble pacifist who rode in on a donkey and upset the religious leaders. He promised liberation from death but not liberation from Rome. He wasn’t what they expected or wanted. So “hosanna” turns to “crucify him.”

Jesus fulfilled the “hosanna” request. He did save us, through his death and resurrection. We called for his death, and he saved us anyway. We have guilt on our lips, and he forgives us. Palm Sunday is the beginning of the confusing, chaotic, uncomfortable time that is Holy Week. It’s dark and solemn, but it begins and ends in beautiful triumph.  

Friday, April 11, 2014

7 Quick Takes Friday (vol. 85)

1. I’ve arrived at the most stressful part of the year. Trying to get lots and lots of work done while still fitting in time for Easter, family, and friends. Making time for others is helping my sanity but really taking a hit on my schoolwork. So to alleviate some stress, here are some videos and songs that have brightened up the more stressful days lately.

2. Samuel L. Jackson artfully expresses the beauty of Boy Meets World. In related news, the Girl Meets World promo was released this week. Even if the new show is awful, I'll have to watch it for a bit just to see Corey and Topanga.

3. Action Bill. Lego stop motion, Shakespeare and Star Trek? What's not to like?

4. I finally got around to watching Scrubs. I knew I would like it when I realized that the writers clearly liked the same music as me. It fully won me over with Erasure's "A Little Respect" taking over the hospital.

5. All that is wonderful about being a girl in the '90s: Spice Girls and Disney princesses.

6. A slightly sacrilegious song to prepare for Holy Week.

7. A more serious song to prepare for Holy Week.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Council of Jerusalem (50)

I’ve decided to do a series on the official councils of the Church. Because doctrine is usually defined in face of heresy, councils are good ways of 1. learning doctrine of the Church and 2. learning some history of the Church. While councils usually clarify doctrine, it doesn’t stop heresies from continuing. But they do help us recognize and name those heresies and hopefully avoid them. 

Council of Jerusalem
The Council of Jerusalem is not really considered an ecumenical council. The religion had not yet spread far enough. Yet there was already divisions forming. This council is unique in that is recorded in the Bible and sets the president for further councils. Councils are usually called with the purpose of addressing divisive issues and clarifying doctrine as disagreements arise. The Council of Jerusalem was held around the year 50. 

The main issue at the time was whether Gentiles converts to Christianity first had to become Jews. Christianity was still seen as an extension of Judaism, so there was the idea that to be Christian meant to be Jewish. James and his followers believed that following traditional Judaism was part of accepting Christ as Messiah. Paul and his followers believed that Christ’s message was open to Gentiles without having to go through Judaism.

It was determined that Christianity was separate from Judaism. Gentiles were not obligated to be circumcised or live under the Law of Moses. However, they were expected to follow the rules regarding idols, fornication, and blood (Acts 15). This created two set of rules: one for Jewish converts and one for Gentile converts. But over time, the Jewish converts were pushed out of their Jewish communities and began to reflect the Gentile Christian community more and more.

I’m not really aware of any contemporary group that requires converts to get circumcised. But there still is debate about how Christians are supposed to follow (or not follow) Jewish law as listed in the Old Testament. The Council of Jerusalem was not about addressing a heresy so much as figuring out what this whole Christianity thing actually meant. Was it a branch of Judaism or something completely new? I for one am quite glad that it was opened up for everyone.