Not Traditional, Original

03.8.2 The Sanitizing of the Writings of the Church Fathers

The writing of the early church fathers is a wonderful resource in learning what early Christians believed and how different elements of the church including doctrines and rites developed.  However, the problem with reading the early church fathers is that the Roman Catholic Church burned writings they didn’t agree with.  The process was simple. They labeled what didn’t agree with their doctrine as heresy and labeled the writers heretics.  The result: heretics lost their financial standing in the world or worse (death) and their writings were burned.

And we lost valuable resources and insights.

This was no small effort.  The first law causing this cleansing came in 382, by Theodosius, a Christian Emporer.  Slaves could even earn their freedom by ratting out their “heretical” masters!  The Roman Catholic Church acknowledges it.

Here’s proof, an excerpt from New Advent Encyclopedia, a Catholic media:

Heretical teachers were forbidden to propagate their doctrines publicly or privately; to hold public disputations; to ordain bishopspresbyters, or any other clergy; to hold religious meetings; to build conventicles or to avail themselves of money bequeathed to them for that purpose. Slaves were allowed to inform against their heretical masters and to purchase their freedom by coming over to the Church. The children of heretical parents were denied their patrimony and inheritance unless they returned to the Catholic Church. The books of heretics were ordered to be burned.” ( Vide “Codex Theodosianus”, lib. XVI, tit. 5, “De Haereticis”.)[i]

Theodosius is said to be the first who pronounced heresy a capital crime; this law was passed in 382 against the Encratites, the Saccophori, the Hydroparastatae, and the Manichæans.

This policy was in force many centuries.

For this reason, reading what remains of the writings of the early church does not reflect the totality of the early Christian experience.

There are clues to what some “heretical” writers wrote in the apologist’s writings that wrote against a particular heresy.  However, what was written against a “heresy” is probably biased as well as possibly misconstrued.

I write this post with sadness as I feel a great sense of loss as to what some of the lost writings might have told us.  I grieve for those believers.

An example of lost writings being relevant today are the writings of Sabellius in the early third century and the Oneness Pentecostal movement today.  Sabellianism, also called Modal Monarchianism, holds  that the Father is God, the Christ is God, and the Holy Spirit is God.  They are all the same God in different modes, but there is one God.  They are not different persons, they are different modes or operations of one God.

To some this is splitting hairs on explaining how the father, his son, and the holy spirit work, but to Trinitarian apologists this is literally blasphemy even worthy of death.

The Roman Church outlawed this line of reasoning but it has continued to be believed by many professing christains at the risk of even death.  An example is  Michael Servatus who was given the death sentence not only by the Inquisitors but even Calvin lobbied for his execution.[ii]

Whatever happened to “Let the man without sin cast the first stone?”  Can anyone see our Lord commanding the death of anyone let alone men like Sabellius or Servatus?   I think not!

Fortunately  Calvin’s condemnation of Servatus started a Protestant controversy against the death penalty for heresy, but it just goes to show how much the evil influence of ungodly Roman Catholic doctrines was brought with the Reformers into the Reformation.  And what a tragedy it was and still is that many popular early Christian writers were attacked and even killed and their writings destroyed.

For your information, there are millions[iii] of Oneness Pentecostals that rigorously believe in basically what Sabellius taught back in the third century. Let the man without sin cast the first stone at them or burn their writings.

[i] New Advent Encyclopedia, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07256b.htm

[ii] Encyclopedia Brittanica Online, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Michael-Servetus

[iii] https://theologicalmatters.com/2014/06/19/the-assemblies-of-god-the-worldwide-growth-of-pentecostalism/

December 29th, 2018 Posted by | Movements | no comments   Trajan’s Response to Pliny as an example of the Roman View on Christianity

The Roman response to Christianity varied from severe  persecution to an attitude of “Don’t ask … don’t look for them.”  This latter attitude was initiated by the Emperor Trajan.  Before we discuss Trajan it needs to be noted that the Roman Empire was a huge place, and obviously, people couldn’t travel nor communicate at the speed at which they can now. So while persecutions may have been very visible in Rome and major Roman cities Romans in fringe areas were very possibly very accepting of Christians. Persecution really varied from place to place and time to time.

Bithynia was an area on the modern shore of what is now Turkey. And in 111 Pliny the Younger was appointed its governor. Pliny was neither a despot nor a pagan fanatic. He appears to have been a fair man, an educated man who simply wanted to do a good job as a Roman governor. And as soon as he was appointed governor he noticed a problem. There were so many Christians in the area that the temples were being underused and the sellers of animals for sacrifices were hurting for business. Pliny began investigating, and started bringing Christians before him for examination.

One of the policies of Roman conquest was that it did not try to change everything in the places that it conquered. Rather, it was relatively tolerant of the beliefs and systems of its conquered peoples. Its approach was to build the Roman cities in the newly conquered lands as well as to introduce Roman customs and laws that it believed would foster a peace Empire wide.  As part of its policy on tolerance Roman citizens had to be accepting of Roman religion and thus worship all the gods. You could worship your God as long as you worshiped Roman gods.

When Pliny brought Christians before him he demanded that they follow these practices: “they pray to the gods, burn incense before the image of the Emperor, and curse Christ – things he had heard true Christians would never do. Once they met these requirements he simply let them go.”[i]

When confronted many did recant. However, many did not. Pliny felt that he had a large problem as there were a lot of Christians in his jurisdiction. If the Christians were Roman citizens they were sent to Rome. But of those that were not he had them executed as the law required.

However, with this being a continuing problem, and with Pliny considering himself fair and just, he sought to find out just what crimes these Christians were really committing, besides just being really stubborn about not worshiping Roman gods. He found out that they gathered before dawn to sing hymns. He found that they took oaths not to commit thefts, adultery or other sins. He found that they had been meeting for a common meal but had discontinued those when authorities had outlawed those meetings. What he didn’t find were real crimes.

Pliny actually tortured two female ministers to grill them on what their activities really were, looking for treason, sedition, i.e., real crimes.  Not surprisingly, he found out they weren’t really committing any crimes other than not worshiping all the gods. So he suspended operations and wrote to the Emperor Trajan.

Trajan was Emperor from 98 to 117. But his response to Pliny’s request lasted well into the middle of  third century.

Trajan’s response was simple and quick. “When it comes to the punishment of Christians, there is no general rule that is equally valid in all circumstances. On the one hand, the nature of their crime is such that the state should not waste time seeking them out. On the other hand, if they are accused and refuse to recant, they should be punished. Those who are willing to worship the gods should be pardoned without further inquiries. Finally, anonymous accusations should be disregarded, for they are of bad legal precedent and are unworthy of this age.”[ii]

This was a political response. It acknowledged that Christians were not committing crimes against citizens, or of the state for that matter, other than not worshiping Roman gods. But the problem was no one could be allowed to flaunt the law. By being required to worship Roman gods, and refusing to do so, they were showing contempt for the law. By not burning incense to the Emperor they were showing contempt for the Roman concept of who the Emperor was.

Knowing this policy of Roman law regarding their faith required Christians to expend considerable effort, first of all, not to offend possible accusers.  If no one accused you, you could live your whole life freely worshipping the Lord as you saw fit.  But a lot of activities had to be hidden from possible accusers.

Secondly, Christians needed to develop a strategy for educating Roman society in general as to their true nature.  The strategy they developed was to write apologies. Today apology takes the meaning of saying “I’m sorry”. But the word apology actually comes from the Greek word apologia meaning defense.  The second and third centuries especially produced numerous Christian apologists defending their faith, and in so doing also changed the way the Christians thought about their faith.  In defending the faith Apologists had to explain Christianity in terms that Roman Society would understand.  Comparisons had to be made, for example, to other religions and philosophies,  to show what was considered offensive in Christianity was actually found in religions and philosophies that already existed and were accepted in the empire.  This, however, opened it own cans of worms as using existing religions and philosophies introduced concepts and terms that were outside the realm of what the participants of original Christianity discussed.

Also at issue was the attitude of Roman aristocracy against the kinds of people who were Christians at that time. While it is true there were a few higher ranking Romans, business people, and so forth the majority of Christians were from the lower classes, and were considered a crude ignorant lot. In fact, because of that, Christianity itself was considered a foolish, crude religion practiced by a bunch of barbarians.

As a result apologists and the early church fathers often got involved in discussions to show the superiority of Christianity to the religions whose gods they had to worship or be executed.  But the discussions worked in some places to integrate Christianity both with pagan cultures and practices and with Greek philosophies.

Yet something needed to happen for believers striving to live their Christian faith for Christ in the environment where simply being Christian could get them executed under a long standing Roman policy.

[i] The Story of Christianity, Justo L Gonzalez, HarperOne,  HarperCollins, New York, 2010 p.50

[ii] ibid

October 31st, 2018 Posted by | Movements | no comments

04.01 Augustine’s Crooked Path to Catholicism

Augustine was born of a pagan father and a Christian mother in in Thagaste in Algeria in 354[i] AD.

It was an interesting time. There was a strong clash between the liberal Christianity in the West of the Empire and the dogmatic, conservative Christianity of the eastern part of the Empire. Christianity in the west was “tending to absorb pagan cultures, to synthesize the biblical teaching with classical education, Christian with pagan art, and to accommodate the churches law to the ways of existing society.”[ii] In the East and that included North Africa, “Christianity, both Donatist and Catholic, continued the tradition of protest. Views tended to be formulated in terms of contrast with pagan society.… Christianity was regarded as a ‘law’ distinct from secular law.”[iii]  In northern Africa converts renounced everything about the world: politics, philosophies, literature, art, and so forth.

Donatism was a very pure form of Christianity and is reflected in the above statement. Donatists believed that the hallmark of Christianity was purity for the believer and especially for the clergy. Donatists aspired to for a martyr’s death. Donatists believed that their clergy must be faultless for their sacraments to be valid.  Donatism was the opposition to the Western Christianity’s willingness to absorb pagan society.

Many people in North Africa in high places of society were Donatist, and Donatism continued into the sixth century.

Thagaste at the time of Augustine’s birth had recently been Donatist, but had converted to Catholicism.  Still, these issues of the standards of North African Catholicism, Donatism, and Western Catholicism were widely debated around Augustine from his birth. That is not to say that Augustine was pure in his Christianity from the very onset because as we shall see he embraced other philosophies and religions before he eventually became the Orthodox theological powerhouse that led him to be later named as one of the first Doctors of the Church.

On a broader scope Augustine was born mid fourth century, and the fourth century marked major changes for Christians and the establishment of much of what to this day became to be known as orthodox mainstream Christianity.  In 313 AD Christians are restored their property.  In 323 AD Christianity is established as at least a religion of the empire. The council of Nicaea, 325 AD, established the Nicene creed with the deity of Christ as its focal point and of one substance with the father as the key phrase.  In 380 AD Nicene (read Orthodox) Christianity is declared the official religion of the Empire.  In 381 at the 3rd Council of Constantinople the doctrine of the Trinity is established making Jesus and the holy spirit persons of the Godhead.  In 397 the Catholic church created the official canon of scripture at the Council of Carthage.  Augustine’s life was in the middle of all these events.

Augustine was raised a Christian by his Christian mother, Monnica.  His father, Patricius, was a small land owner who had a good position in the community. Patricius did not embrace Christianity until later in his life.

Though very smart and raised to be Christian, Augustine was a pretty wild kid. He ran with a crowd that lived totally in contrast to the Christianity around them.  In his book Confessions, Augustine describes how he and his mates pursued sex, boasting and reveling in it. In the same book he cites a misdeed of stealing pears from someone, and how the group reveled that they had gotten away with it not been caught. Condemnation from these misdeeds and more motivated Augustine for the rest of his life.

As a teenager he was sent to Madaura and then to Carthage for studies in Rhetoric. Rhetoric is the study of persuasive speech, and as Augustine’s persuasion extends to modern times, he excelled at it.

Again, Augustine’s path was not straight and true. He was raised a Christian, but later became a Ciceronian and then even later converted to Manicheism, a religion with Christian, Gnostic, and pagan elements. A Manichean who has known him at Rome stated that his mind was set on the great things that elevate the soul toward heaven.

“At Carthage Augustine experienced two conversions, first, circa 372, toward the undivided pursuit of wisdom through philosophy, and second, circa 373, as a means to that end, to the Manichaean interpretation of Christianity.”[iv] Augustine finally returned to Catholicism around 386 AD.

While studying Augustine took a concubine, and had a son.  He lived with the concubine for 14 years.

Williston Walker writes, “if this sensuous Augustine was thus early aroused, truth seeking Augustine was speedily awakened. When nineteen, the study of Cicero’s now almost completely lost Hortensius ‘changed my affections, and turned my prayers to Thyself, oh Lord’[v].  This imperfect conversion caused Augustine to desire to seek truth as that alone of value. He began to study the Scriptures, “but they appeared to me on worthy to be compared with the dignity of Cicero.”[vi] Augustine did not stay a Christian at this point. Instead he turned to Manichaeism and remained a Manichaean for nine years. Eventually he met a well respected Manichaean leader named Faustus which proved to be a turning point.

Faustus proved to be a disappointment, and Augustine’s commitment to Manichaeism waned. In 383 A.D. Augustine moved to Rome, and then in 384 he obtained a position as a teacher of rhetoric in Milan. In Milan Augustine met Ambrose, a powerful and eloquent preacher. Augustine was more impressed with the elegance with which Ambrose preached than the message. Nevertheless, Augustine began to follow Ambrose.

At the same time, Augustine’s mother, Monica, persuaded him to become betrothed to a person fit for his station. With regret Augustine dismissed his concubine but “entered on an even less credible relation with another. It was the low point of his moral life “[vii]

Augustine turned again to philosophy, this time Neoplatonism. Somehow he believed this philosophy showed him that the spiritual world and God were the only realities. The greatest blessing of life was to know God, and this new philosophy led him to accept Christianity. But it wasn’t necessarily the simple Christianity of the New Testament. Augustine was impressed with the authority of the Catholic Church as religion of the Empire.

Now, Augustine embraced Scripture. He literally heard a nearby child say “Take up and read” and he immediately opened a copy of the epistles that he had with him to read “not in rioting or drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof”.  This transformed him. He was converted. With that Augustine found peace and confidence that he had the power from God to change.

Augustine embraced Roman Catholicism as the path for living Christianity. Augustine wrote, “I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church.”[viii] He resigned his position and retired with friends to an estate named Cassisaicum to wait to be baptized and where he began debating with his friends his newfound Christianity. The debates were philosophical discussions along Neoplatonist lines, and at the same time Augustine began writing treatises.

From there he was baptized, later ordained to the priesthood, still later ordained Bishop of Hippo. “In Hippo he founded the first monastery for that portion of Africa and made it also a training school for the clergy.”[ix]

All along the way Augustine wrote, putting his training in rhetoric to use. He was a prolific writer, and much of it has survived to this day.

It’s important to me to see the mindset of Augustine. Here is a man, a privileged man who has the opportunity to embrace different philosophies, religions, and lifestyles before finally deciding that the religion of Roman Catholicism in North Africa in the late fourth century is the absolute way to go. Furthermore, here is a man that is a gifted communicator who used that communication skill to persuade as many people as he could to do likewise. I mean the man set up the first monastery/seminary for his part of the world. How more influential could anyone be?

Because of Augustine’s status as a Doctor of the Church and what that means, let’s take a minute and contrast Augustine’s path as a “man inspired by the Holy Spirit to formulate Christian doctrine”(the Roman Catholic Church’s definition of a Doctor of the Church) with the apostle Paul, the most prolific writer in the new Testament. Paul was instructed by the disciples, apostles, prophets, etc. of the first century. As an educated man, Paul certainly was familiar with philosophy, but his training was not Greek, but rather Jewish. Paul was certified as one who was led by the Holy Spirit as he was declared to be an apostle.

Augustine, on the other hand, was much more a product of the times he lived in. Furthermore, as we will see in studying some of his writings that are crucial to the promotion he received to become a Doctor of the Church, he was deeply influenced by both his personal indiscretions as well as the conflict between the different factions in the church to be, for example, highly puritanical in his approach to sex as well as other issues.

Look at this paragraph by WHC Frend regarding the religious and philosophical conflicts of Augustine’s time, “if Donatism suited the majority of Christians in North Africa, it’s insular and rigorous traditions had always been opposed by those who either sought (like Augustine) a synthesis between philosophy and Christianity, and those who were prepared to go further – to reject the Old Testament as the word of God and accept a mystical dualistic interpretation of Christianity. The Gnostics and Marcionites of the second and third centuries have largely been absorbed by the Manachees… In the 75 years since Diocletian’s rescript banning them, they have flourished in North Africa.”[x]

This paragraph again shows that Christianity at this point had gone away from the simple, Jewish based traditions that we see in the Old Testament, and for centuries had been merging with philosophy and the other traditions of Greek thinking as well as absorbing pagan culture in all of its forms. At the same time factions were rising that developed ascetic Christianities focusing on purity, denial, and legalism. And  Augustine was right in the middle of these transitions and conflicts. What Augustine did and wrote about after that clearly reflects these conflicts.

Nevertheless Augustine was a profound individual, and I believe a true believer.  In future posts we will examine his writings to see more about what he taught and its status as true Christian doctrine.

[i] [i] THE RISE OF CHRISTIANITY, W.H.C. Frend, Fortress House, Philadelphia, 1984, p. 659

[ii] Ibid, p. 652

[iii] Ibid p. 653

[iv] THE RISE OF CHRISTIANITY, W.H.C. Frend, Fortress House, Philadelphia, 1984, p. 660

[v] Confessions 3:4

[vi] A HISTORY OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH, Williston Walker, Scribners, New York, 1959  p.161

[vii] ibid

[viii] Against the epistle of Manichaeus, 5

[ix] Ibid p. 162

[x] Ibid, p.661

October 10th, 2018 Posted by | Movements | no comments