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dianoigo blog
Showing posts with label church history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label church history. Show all posts

Tuesday 8 August 2017

Why join the Church that produced the Crusades, the Inquisition and the Clerical Sex Abuse Scandal?

Since becoming a Catholic earlier this year, I have had correspondence and conversations with a number of relatives and friends who believe I have made a big error in judgment. They expressed their concerns with care and candour and even a degree of perplexity—joining the Catholic Church is not just inadvisable, it is not worth a moment’s thought. My relatives and friends raised various specific reasons why becoming a Catholic was such a bad idea, such as (what they perceive to be) unbiblical doctrines and a wooden, ritualistic approach to religious life. For most, though, a very clear deal-breaker is the Catholic Church’s shameful history. Questions were posed like, “Why in the world would you want to associate yourself with a church that has committed so many atrocities?” A list would then follow with items such as the usurpation of temporal political power, the Crusades, the Inquisition (and many other acts of persecution targeting Jews and nonconformist Christians), the stubborn resistance to non-geocentric models of the universe, the sale of indulgences and other corrupt practices that precipitated the Protestant Reformation, and—in our own time—the still-unfolding clerical sex abuse scandal. Those who really know their history could undoubtedly add many more examples, but these suffice to make the point: the Catholic Church has a very checkered past, to say the least. Is it not obvious that this is not the true Church but a corrupt distortion? Who could be so na├»ve as to think otherwise?

Now, I doubt that any non-Catholic has converted to Catholicism in recent times without first having seriously wrestled with this issue. And there are various ways one might try to “get around it,” so to speak. One could dig up dirt on other ecclesiastical traditions to show that their track record is not much better. One could argue that once one understands the historical context, various people and events were not as bad as they first appear. One could point to many positive contributions of the Catholic Church in areas of public health, poverty alleviation, social justice, education, human rights, etc. Or one could disown those who commit(ted) such atrocities as not real Catholics, and dissociate oneself from this past. After all, I didn’t go on the Crusades, and I didn’t burn anyone at the stake. Don’t blame me for things that happened long ago.

There are elements of validity in each of the above approaches to the problem of the Catholic Church’s unsightly past, but in my view none of them comes close to a satisfactory answer. The first three approaches risk denying the seriousness of the problem. The fourth approach risks compromising the catholicity of the Church, which would by definition be un-Catholic. It also risks falling prey to the fallacy of "guilt by association" and its obverse, purity by dissociation. The problem of disreputable doings in the Catholic Church’s past (and present) is addressed not by denying, downplaying or disowning this history, but precisely by owning it. Wait—are you saying you approve of filling the streets of the holy land with Muslim blood, devising elaborate torture machines to “encourage” repentance, or sheltering pedophile priests from justice? Absolutely not. So what exactly am I saying?

To take ownership of the past means three things. It means, firstly, to acknowledge the past. “This happened, and it was terrible.” In this we follow the lead of Pope John Paul II, who offered many apologies on behalf of the Church during his reign. Caution is needed, since some accusations raised about Catholic history may be exaggerated, embellished or downright false. Moreover, negativity cannot be allowed to govern the narrative such that the positive aspects of our Church's history—above all, the faithful saints of all ages—are neglected. All the same, one must not make excuses or whitewash the past, but face it head on.

It means, secondly, to resist dissociating oneself from that past. “This was done in our Church, by our brothers and sisters. It is part of our collective story.” That is not to say that all Catholics, either today or at particularly difficult points in history, are individually guilty of these historical sins. (This would be analogous to the crude anti-Semitic claim that all Jews past and present are Christ-killers.) However, the Catholic doctrine of a visible, concrete Church rules out any ecclesiological gerrymandering whereby we redraw the boundaries of the Catholic Church—past or present—to exclude those popes, bishops, priests, nations or eras that don’t correspond to our ideal. The Catholic Church houses all Catholics, warts and all. As Catholics, we recognize Church history as our history, not someone else’s. As Pope John Paul II said:
Hence it is appropriate that as the second millennium of Christianity draws to a close the Church should become ever more fully conscious of the sinfulness of her children, recalling all those times in history when they departed from the spirit of Christ and his Gospel and, instead of offering to the world the witness of a life inspired by the values of faith, indulged in ways of thinking and acting which were truly forms of counter-witness and scandal. Although she is holy because of her incorporation into Christ, the Church does not tire of doing penance. Before God and man, she always acknowledges as her own her sinful sons and daughters.” (Tertio millennio adveniente 33)
Thirdly, it means learning from past mistakes. As the saying goes, “Those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it.” If that is true of human history in general, how much more is it true of our communal history as the One Body? And it is precisely at this point that the Catholic Church’s checkered past becomes an asset rather than a liability. We have far more mistakes to learn from than any other church, denomination or sect! And learn from them we have. The hard lessons of the past have become part of the Church’s communal memory, part of the Church’s small-t tradition. By owning them the Church ensures they will never be forgotten.

If one needs a biblical justification for this approach to Church history, one need not look far. The Israelites provide an excellent parallel. The Old Testament exemplifies the principle of owning the past, warts and all. The Hebrew Bible was written about Israel, for Israel, by Israelites who fervently believed Israel to be the special people of God. Yet the biblical history of Israel is full of shameful episodes and deeply flawed characters! Even among the heroes of the Bible you find incest, deceit, adultery and murder. The historians who chronicled the kings of the northern kingdom of Israel couldn't find a single king whom they could call “good.” It wasn’t just the leaders, either. The privileged people whom Yahweh had delivered from Egypt with a mighty hand murmured against His servant Moses. Through the centuries they repeatedly forsook Yahweh for foreign idols or mingled Yahweh-worship with abominations. Yet, looking back on such history, the biblical writers make no attempt to disguise it or dissociate themselves from it. It is the history of their people and, paradoxical though it may be, God’s people. Thus they preserve this history for posterity so that Israel can remember what Israel has done and learn from it. In the New Testament, perhaps no passage exemplifies the ownership of a troubled past more than the Matthaean genealogy of Jesus (Matt. 1:1-17). Matthew gratuitously highlights several women of ill repute in the Saviour’s pedigree: Tamar the incestuous seductress; Rahab the scheming prostitute; Ruth the Moabite; Bathsheba the adulteress. The ignominious “deportation to Babylon” forms one of the historical milestones around which the genealogy is structured. Matthew seems at pains to emphasise that Jesus’s family tree is anything but impeccable.

If the Catholic Church must take ownership of shameful episodes in her past and preserve their memory in order to learn their lessons, this is a feature she shares with her forebear biblical Israel. One must add that this is not simply an unending circle of mistakes. When one studies the Book of Judges, one becomes acquainted with the cycle of blessing, followed by complacency and sin, followed by punishment and suffering, followed by repentance, followed by deliverance and blessing again. However, the full history of Israel is not one of going in circles, of futility. In the post-exilic period, for example, Israel definitively overcame the vice of cultic idolatry that had plagued her for centuries. The Jewish people survived a harrowing test of their religious loyalty in the Maccabean period and Jewish identity became synonymous with monolatry thereafter. Observant Jewry has never since been ensnared in cultic idolatry.

In similar fashion, many values embedded in the Catholic Church’s DNA have been refined through the hard lessons of history. Peace activism, opposition to capital punishment, the Just War doctrine (which makes vanishingly small the circumstances under which war is permissible and then restricts almost to impracticability the means by which such a war can be waged), advocacy for religious freedom, an intense ecumenical programme with non-Catholic Christians and conciliatory dialogue with Jews and Muslims—all of this has emerged from the shadow of the Crusades and the Inquisition.

Catholicism is a truly historical religion. It engages thoroughly with its own history, celebrating the good and lamenting the bad and the ugly. As Catholics, we cannot whitewash our past, because it is part of us. We do not smugly denounce bad people and events from our Catholic past at arm’s length as though they are the Other, something remote and strange. They too belong to us; they are part of our family tree, just as Judah and Tamar and Rehoboam and Ahaz and Manasseh and Jehoiachin were part of Jesus’s family tree. When we denounce their actions it is with a posture of humility, knowing that if they fell, so could we. Therefore we are—paradoxical though it may be—thankful to God for all of our Catholic history. Not thankful that bad things were done, but thankful that we have such a vast communal experience from which to learn.

So, to the question, “Why in the world would you want to associate yourself with a church that has committed so many atrocities?” my answer is, “So that I can take my place in the Church's long and checkered history, take ownership of it and learn from it.”

Further Reading: International Theological Commission (1999). Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past.

Monday 17 October 2016

Our Nicene common ancestor: an ecclesiological-historical argument for Trinitarian orthodoxy

1. The historical pedigree criterion
2. The Gamaliel criterion
3. Applying the criteria
4. Our Nicene common ancestor
5. Conclusion
Addendum: Possible objections considered

In this article I offer a theological argument for Trinitarian orthodoxy. The argument is indirect in that it does not look at the doctrine of the Trinity directly (or at related issues such as the deity of Christ and the personality of the Holy Spirit). Rather, the argument is based entirely on the doctrine of the church (ecclesiology) and the history of the church. The default alternative position will be that of Christadelphians, although it would apply equally to other non-Trinitarian restorationist movements such as Jehovah's Witnesses or the Church of God General Conference.


Many people who are active on social media have probably seen the satirical meme below at some point. I don't know who created the meme, but I'm guessing it was intended to discredit the claims of fundamentalist and/or restorationist movement(s) to have the definitive truth over against the myriads of other present and past ecclesiastical traditions.
One of the assumptions implicit in this meme is that the historical pedigree of a Christian movement affects the credibility of its theological claims. It is the recent appearance of 'our movement' that makes its claim to have definitively 'gotten the Bible right' sound ridiculous.1 If 'our movement' had not 'come along' lately but could trace its history back to antiquity through an unbroken chain of tradition, the credibility of its truth claims would increase.

We can call the criterion presupposed by the meme the historical pedigree criterion. It is clearly a retrospective criterion, used to evaluate the theological legitimacy of contemporary Christian movements in view of their past. A weak statement of this criterion would be simply that a movement should have a long and impressive historical pedigree in order to claim theological legitimacy for itself. A stronger statement of this criterion would be that a movement should be able to plausibly claim direct, unbroken historical descent from the apostolic church. Obviously the theological shape of the church in the apostolic and early post-apostolic period is disputed (due to differing interpretations of the New Testament and other early Christian literature), and the available historical data increases as we move forward in time. Nevertheless, if we want the truth claims of 'our movement' to be taken seriously, we should be able to offer a credible historical argument for its continuous existence since antiquity.


In contrast to the retrospective historical pedigree criterion, the theological legitimacy of a religious movement might also be assessed prospectively. A criterion for doing so is found within the New Testament in the speech of Rabbi Gamaliel the Elder to the Sanhedrin. In response to a speech from Peter and the apostles, the members of the Sanhedrin 'were enraged and wanted to kill them'. Gamaliel, Luke tells us, placated their wrath as follows:
34 But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in honor by all the people, stood up and gave orders to put the men outside for a little while. 35 And he said to them, "Men of Israel, take care what you are about to do with these men. 36 For before these days Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. 37 After him Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered. 38 So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!" So they took his advice... (Acts 5:34-39 ESV)
Gamaliel's argument is built upon two simple and opposite premises. (1) A movement that is not of God will inevitably 'fail' and 'come to nothing'; whereas (2) a movement that is of God is impossible to overthrow; it is indestructible and will endure. Hence, the future of the Jesus movement is theologically predetermined, and neither the action nor the inaction of the Sanhedrin can alter it.

What does Luke think of Gamaliel's argument? Within the broader narrative context of Acts it is obvious that he endorses it, because the reader learns that in contrast to the movements of Theudas and Judas the Galilean, the Jesus movement did not come to nothing, but prospered and fulfilled its founder's prediction that it would extend 'to the end of the earth' (Acts 1:8). This prediction is symbolically fulfilled in Acts 26-28 by Paul's arrival in Rome for an impending audience with the emperor himself. The implicit argument of Acts is that the continued existence and spread of the Jesus movement - amid persecution, no less - proves in terms of Gamaliel's argument that it cannot be overthrown because it is 'of God'.

Gamaliel's argument is consistent with other New Testament texts that presuppose what might be termed 'the perseverance of the church'. Jesus famously declared to Simon Peter that 'the gates of Hades shall not prevail against [my church]' (Matt. 16:18), a promise which seems to require at very least her perpetual existence. Similarly, in Jesus' final words to his disciples in Matthew, he promises to be with them to 'the end of the age' (Matt. 28:20), a phrase which in Matthaean context can only mean 'until the Parousia' (Matt. 13:40-43, 49-50; 24:3). It is difficult to imagine the church lapsing into non-existence as long as her Lord is 'with her'. The metaphor of the church as Christ's body also assumes the church's perpetual existence since Christ's body is nourished by him (Eph. 5:29-30), and the same could be said of the metaphor of the church as Christ's bride (Rev. 21:9; 22:17). We are only scratching the surface of biblical ecclesiology here, but it is enough to make our point.

Gamaliel's argument gives us a clear prospective criterion for evaluating the theological legitimacy of religious movements, including 'our movement'. If 'our movement' is not of God, it will eventually come to nothing. If, on the other hand, 'our movement' is of God, it will endure - regardless of any human attempts to suppress or destroy it.


Let us discuss the application of Gamaliel's criterion first, since this is more easily done. Gamaliel's criterion is not useful for evaluating present-day Christian movements, because we must wait and see whether each one will 'come to nothing', which may take centuries. However, Gamaliel's criterion is useful for evaluating past Christian movements, because we can conclude that any movement that 'came to nothing' was not of God. This allows us to rule out the theological legitimacy of many historical Christian movements. These would include the Ebionites, Marcionites, various Gnostic sects, Montanists, Arians, Sabellians, Donatists, Cathars (Albigensians), Paulinicians, and many others. The 'gates of Hades' finally prevailed against all of these movements, so evidently none of them was the object of Christ's ecclesiological promises.

The historical pedigree criterion can be applied to present-day Christian movements, but its application is not as straightforward. This is because most present-day Christian movements formed through schism from or within a parent movement at some point in the past. However, in many such schisms, both (or all, if more than two) the 'child' movements claim to be the legitimate heir of the parent. An obvious example would be the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches after the Great Schism of 1054. Neither party regarded (or regards) itself as having broken away and formed a new movement; each believed it had excommunicated the leading bishop of the other and then continued as the true and legitimate Church. Hence, post-1054 both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches could make a plausible historical claim that the pre-1054 Catholic/Orthodox Church was part of their historical pedigree.

In determining whether a nominally new 'child' movement can be plausibly be called the legitimate heir of an older 'parent' movement, the following should apply:
(H1) There should be a direct historical link between the two movements, i.e. among the early members of the 'child movement' were individuals who had previously belonged to the 'parent movement'.
(H2) The 'child' movement, from its nominal beginning, should have identified the parent movement as its theologically legitimate historical antecedent and identified itself as the legitimate continuation of the parent movement.
(H3) The doctrinal beliefs of the 'child movement' should align with those of the 'parent movement'.

Now, the vast majority of present-day Christian movements are going to come up against a historical barrier as they follow their pedigree back in time, and that barrier is the Reformation. Nearly all Protestant movements existing today either broke away directly from the Roman Catholic Church (e.g. Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians), or broke away from a movement that broke away from the Roman Catholic Church (e.g. Methodists), or broke away from a movement that broke away from a movement that broke away from the Roman Catholic Church, and so on. Other movements congealed through the coming together of like-minded people from various Protestant backgrounds. Hence, as we move backward in time, the historical pedigree of nearly every Protestant movement is absorbed into the Roman Catholic Church once we reach about 1500. All such movements must claim either (a) that the Roman Catholic Church, at least prior to the Reformation, was (or contained) the true body of Christ; or (b) there was an extended period of time prior to the Reformation during which the true body of Christ did not exist, i.e. came to nothing. If (a), then it must be conceded that people who were nominally Roman Catholic constituted the true body of Christ, at least for a time. If (b), then no movement meets the historical pedigree criterion, and Christianity itself is falsified by the Gamaliel criterion and the failure of the Lord's promises.

The exception to this 'historical barrier' among present-day Protestants are those who might legitimately claim (in terms of H1, H2 and H3 above) that their historical pedigree runs through the Vaudois (a.k.a. Waldenses), who existed before the Protestant Reformation and whose leaders embraced the Reformation in the 16th century. However, those who claim ecclesiological descent from the Vaudois can only push their historical barrier about three centuries further back, to the late 12th century. Their founder, Peter Waldo, was a Roman Catholic who began teaching ideas contrary to Church doctrine and was excommunicated. (For Christadelphian readers who are familiar with Alan Eyre's books, it may be of interest to hear that the Vaudois were Trinitarian.)

The Roman Catholic Church, of course, traces its historical pedigree back through the Great Schism of 1054 (seeing itself as the legitimate heir of pre-1054 catholic orthodoxy2) and thence through catholic orthodoxy of the medieval and patristic periods. The Eastern Orthodox Church does the same. The Oriental Orthodox Church traces its historical pedigree back to 451 when it became separated from the wider catholic-orthodox church over the Chalcedonian Definition. The Oriental Orthodox Church lodges a claim alongside that of the Roman Catholic-Eastern Orthodox Church to be the rightful heir of the pre-451 catholic-orthodox church. Similarly, the Church of the East traces its historical pedigree back to 431 when it became separated from the wider catholic-orthodox church over Nestorianism. The Church of the East thus lodges a claim alongside that of the Roman Catholic-Eastern Orthodox-Oriental Orthodox Church to be the rightful heir of the pre-431 catholic-orthodox church.

What are the implications of this ecclesiastical family tree that we have just verbally sketched?


Every Christian movement that exists today is descended from the catholic-orthodox church as it was in 430 A.D. (on the eve of the Nestorian schism of 431). And this was, of course, the church that had reached consensus on the doctrine of the Trinity at the ecumenical councils of Nicea (325) and Constantinople (381). There were various other Christian movements that existed in 430 A.D. (Arians, Montanists, Marcionites, Paulianists, Apollinarians, Gnostics, etc.) but these all eventually 'came to nothing'. Of the 'Christianities' that existed in 430 A.D., only Niceno-Constantinopolitan Trinitarian Christianity has continuously existed until the present day.

This means no Christian movement existing today can trace its historical pedigree back to the apostles without being absorbed into Trinitarian catholic orthodoxy at some point. All roads back to the apostles pass through Constantinople and Nicea. The early-fifth-century catholic church is the 'common ancestor' of all present-day Christian movements. And it must be emphasized that the early-fifth-century catholic church was not merely one in which the doctrine of the Trinity was popular or was the majority opinion. The doctrine of the Trinity had been dogmatically promulgated in the fourth century ecumenical councils, and non-Trinitarians had been anathemized. Everyone in communion with the catholic-orthodox church in the early fifth century was either a Trinitarian or a charlatan.

Indeed, for non-Trinitarian movements of today, their non-Trinitarian historical pedigree at best goes back about five centuries to the dawn of the Protestant Reformation (that is, if historical continuity in terms of criteria H1, H2 and H3 above exists between contemporary non-Trinitarians and 16th-century non-Trinitarians, which is debatable).3 Before that, their historical pedigree is Roman Catholic - a tradition that had indisputably been Trinitarian for more than a thousand years. The non-Trinitarian Christian movements that exist today are a Reformation or post-Reformation phenomenon. Despite ideological affinities, they have no direct historical links to the non-Trinitarian movements of antiquity, which all 'came to nothing' long before the Reformation, showing themselves by Gamaliel's criterion to be 'not of God'.

The last question we can briefly address is whether the catholic orthodox church as it was in 430 A.D. could plausibly claim theological legitimacy in terms of our two historical criteria. Unquestionably this church meets Gamaliel's criterion: the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed has been used in all of the Catholic/Orthodox ecclesiastical traditions from the fifth century down to the present day (and later in many Protestant movements). The Nicene catholic orthodox church has never 'failed' nor 'come to nothing' - that much is certain.

What about the historical pedigree criterion? Did the catholic orthodox church of 430 A.D. have a plausible claim to direct, unbroken historical descent from the apostolic church? It is undeniable that the patristic church made this claim, and was concerned with this question, as shown by its episcopal succession lists for the patriarchates (Rome, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem) and its great interest in the idea of apostolic succession. Moreover, this church stood in the tradition that had collected and transmitted the apostolic writings and this church had canonized them (defining the boundaries of the New Testament as we know it) in regional synods in the late fourth century. This church claimed as its own many theologians who wrote in the roughly two centuries between the apostolic age and the Council of Nicea (such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, etc.) And whatever one thinks of the theological developments that occurred between the apostolic period and the fourth century, there is no evidence of historical discontinuity between the apostolic church and the Nicene church. The catholic-orthodox bishops down into the fifth century did not repudiate their ecclesiastical forebears, but held them to be worthy of great honour.

Thus, while some details of the claim are open to debate (such as the historical veracity of episcopal succession lists), it is clear that the church of 430 A.D. did claim a historical pedigree going back to the apostles, and that this claim has at least prima facie plausibility.


Non-Trinitarian movements have no plausible claim to direct, unbroken historical descent from the apostolic church. They can only claim to be the restoration of an authentic, apostolic Christian community which had ceased to exist for many centuries. This cessation of existence, this 'coming to nothing', however, violates Gamaliel's dictum and the promises of Christ to his bride. Hence, non-Trinitarian Christian movements have no historically plausible claim to being the indestructible apostolic church. If any Christian movement can make such a claim, it must be one that has remained faithful to the Nicene Trinitarian heritage that all contemporary Christian movements share. It is truly only this heritage that allows us to confess, in the words of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, 'one holy, catholic and apostolic Church'.


The following are objections that might be raised against the argument of this article. I believe that such objections (especially the first three) are an implicit acknowledgment that the premises of the argument (the historical pedigree criterion and the Gamaliel criterion) are valid. The objections are made precisely because members of present-day heterodox Christian movements recognize the theological problem posed by their lack of historical pedigree. And the objections are not inferences drawn from historical evidence but are theologically motivated judgments imposed on history without evidence.

I. 'Our movement' has always existed since the apostles' time, but historical evidence is lacking because it was destroyed in times of censorship and persecution.

There is no doubt that, from the fourth century until the dawn of modernity, ecclesiastical and secular authorities cooperated to suppress 'heresies' using coercion and force - often brutal and lethal force. They did not adopt Rabbi Gamaliel's laissez faire approach. From the perspective of modernity with our liberal values, we can and should lament the morality of the catholic-orthodox Church's past atrocities committed against heretics (as well as Jews and Muslims). Value judgments aside, however, the cold historical reality is that the Catholic Church was largely successful in destroying 'heretical' movements up until the Reformation. This proves that none of the earlier 'heretical' movements constituted the true apostolic church; otherwise no human authority, as Gamaliel argued, would have been able to overthrow them.

Is it possible, however, that the true, non-Trinitarian church has continuously existed since the apostles' time, but that its existence is not well-documented due to persecution and suppression? Could it be that the movement went undetected for extended periods, and that at least a tiny remnant survived every attempt to destroy it? If so, we could not reasonably expect the writings of such a movement to have survived, could we?

There are a number of problems with this romantic, idealized reconstruction of sectarian history. First, no writings survive for most 'heretical movements' in Church history. We have no writings of Marcion, Paul of Samosata, Arius, Peter Waldo, and many other 'heresiarchs'. However, we still know something about them and their beliefs due to the polemic of their catholic opponents. Obviously, the sources are heavily biased and historians must read them critically. Yet there is ample historical evidence that these movements existed and eventually came to nought.

In general, the Catholic Church sought to destroy the heretics themselves and their writings. However, they generally did not try to erase all memory of their existence. Rather, they catalogued and documented past heresies so that they would be better prepared to face future ones. This phenomenon is present already in the second century in the Syntagma, a lost work of Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus' extant five-volume work Against Heresies. Heresiological literature became a whole genre in the patristic and medieval church. Heresies were also named, described and anathemized in the canons of church synods and ecumenical councils.

In the High Middle Ages, with the onset of the Inquisition in the West, the Roman Catholic Church's documentation of heresy became even more meticulous. As Deane explains:
One of the most important elements of the development of medieval inquisitorial activity was its use of texts-its painstaking recording and copying of interrogations, their organization and cross-referencing for easy use, and the collection of supporting written materials on issues of law and theology. Each tribunal had archives of registers into which confessions and information were copied, and these provide some of our best sources for the history of inquisition.4
It is safe to assume that a reasonably complete historical record of 'heretical' Christian movements through the ages has been preserved. It is very unsafe to assume that 'our movement' existed from apostolic times down to the present despite centuries-long gaps in the historical record.

II. The true body of Christ has always existed, not as one identifiable ecclesiastical movement but as a chain of non-conformist movements that went by many different names.

A version of this sort of hypothesis, within the Christadelphian movement, is offered by Alan Eyre in his books The Protesters and Brethren in Christ. Eyre discusses many different nonconformist groups and individuals through church history which he identifies as Christ's true brethren. The problem is that some of these groups have no historical link to one another, and many of them had conflicting doctrinal beliefs, both with each other and with Christadelphians.5 Moreover, Eyre is almost silent about the late patristic and medieval periods, taking the great majority of his examples from the Reformation period (and making passing references to a few early patristic writers).

More broadly, there is no unifying historical or theological thread running through the various non-conformist or 'heretical' Christian movements that have existed through church history.

III. The true body of Christ has always existed, not necessarily as a separate, identifiable ecclesiastical 'movement' but as individual dissidents who held to the true apostolic teachings.

A third objection might be that the true body of Christ was preserved, not in any identifiable ecclesiastical movement(s) but in the hearts and minds of dissident individuals who remained nominally part of the wider church. Surely historians cannot peer into the hearts and minds of long-dead individuals who may have been afraid to openly voice their objections to official Church dogma?

In response, it would be useful to consider the minimum requirements to constitute 'the body of Christ'. Jesus famously said, 'Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them' (Matt. 18:20). Hence, no number of isolated individuals can be the true church, the household of faith, the body of Christ. This requires, at an absolute minimum, two or three people who gather in Jesus' name, i.e. hold meetings and share fellowship in the breaking of bread.

The question is, assuming that such a 'movement of two or three' did exist, would it have been able to maintain its identity across generations, and would it have been able to do so while remaining undetected or at least undocumented by the wider Church? The answer is, almost certainly not. Maintaining theological identity over time without distortion requires a body of extra-biblical teaching in written form. A Christian movement, even a tiny one, that holds religious gatherings with a separate communion and produces non-conformist theological literature is not going to remain unknown within the wider Church for long. If they were nominal Catholics, they would not in good conscience have partaken of the sacraments (e.g. baptizing their children or taking the Eucharist), and this would have drawn the attention of the authorities. Nor are the members of such a movement likely to have wanted to remain unknown. Dissemination of ideas and proselytization are core values shared by nearly all Christian movements. A person who thinks he has the true gospel and everyone around him has a false one is not going to keep his thoughts to himself. 'A city set on a hill cannot be hidden' (see Matt. 5:13-16).

Thus, it is impossible for isolated individuals to have constituted the body of Christ through history. There must at every point in time have been at least two people in fellowship for 'the household of faith' to exist. The conditions required for the perseverance of such a tiny community of believers across generations would also have necessarily led to the growth of the community and its discovery and suppression by the wider Church. And so we are back to the situation of Objection I above. It is utterly implausible that such a community could have survived across many centuries without becoming part of recorded history. To posit the existence of such a tiny, secret 'dissident community' through the centuries in the absence of any evidence is the stuff of a Dan Brown novel.

IV. None of this is of theological importance. It is strictly the teachings of the Bible, not church history or tradition, that determine the theological legitimacy of a Christian movement.

The second sentence in this objection is naive because, even if we hold rigidly to a Sola Scriptura epistemology, our approach to interpreting the Bible will be heavily influenced by our view of church history and tradition. Were the Church Fathers wicked apostates? Or were they, as the classical label suggests, 'fathers' to whom we look for wisdom and guidance?

Moreover, we must realize that individual doctrines of the faith are interconnected and interdependent. Our evaluation of the doctrine of the Trinity cannot be divorced from our doctrine of the Church - our ecclesiology. This article has essentially offered an ecclesiological defense of the doctrine of the Trinity. The ecclesiological principles that undergird the historical argument are drawn straight from the Bible. We have Rabbi Gamaliel's teaching (implicitly endorsed by Luke) that a religious movement that is 'of God' cannot be overthrown while a religious movement that is 'not of God' inevitably comes to nothing. This coheres with Christ's promises to be present with his disciples until the end of the age, to nourish his body the church, and that the gates of Hades would not prevail against the church.

The argument of this article is therefore biblically based, even if its connection to the doctrine of the Trinity is only indirect. Anyone who seeks to justify their non-Trinitarian stance must contend not only with biblical teaching about God, Christ and the Holy Spirit, but also with biblical teaching about the Church as compared with how history actually unfolded. The question is, can 'our movement' plausibly claim to be the body of Christ, in which he has always been present, which he has continually nourished, which has never been overthrown despite the best efforts of human authorities? That all present-day Christian movements (including non-Trinitarian movements) share a common ancestor in the Nicene Trinitarian church suggests that no non-Trinitarian movement can make such a claim.6

If no non-Trinitarian movement can meet the two criteria that the true body of Christ should have, this casts a dark cloud of suspicion over the legitimacy of non-Trinitarian theology and provides a strong motivation to reopen the question of its biblical basis. Hence, this fourth objection does not address the problem but simply ignores it.

V. The New Testament forewarns about false teachers who would lead the church astray, a problem that had already begun in the apostles' time.

This claim does not directly impact the argument because it has no bearing on the validity of the historical pedigree criterion or the Gamaliel criterion. Indeed, if Nicene Christianity was the fruit of a 'great apostasy' (as some unitarian restorationists would claim), then the only form of Christianity that meets these two criteria is an apostate form, which effectively falsifies Christianity in toto.

New Testament passages that warn about false prophets or false teachers (and there are many) must be balanced against the many passages that promise active divine support for the church through the headship of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, the warning passages themselves witness to the robust reaction against false teaching that took place in the early church. Hence, the ecclesiological picture that emerges from the New Testament is not one of gloom and pessimism but of a church that faces daunting challenges within and without but is sustained by her gracious Lord.

Indeed, the writings of second-century, proto-orthodox Church Fathers such as Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyons show a continuation of the apostolic tradition of standing strong against false teachings. Orthodoxy can point to many heresies that arose (fulfilling New Testament predictions) and which were successfully opposed. Thus, the New Testament warnings about false teachers pose no problem for orthodoxy unless we presuppose that 'orthodoxy' is the false teaching about which the New Testament forewarned (which is, of course, circular reasoning).7

Footnotes

  • 1 The other aspect would be the sheer number of such recent movements of which 'our movement' is just one. In view of the numbers, the antecedent probability of 'our movement' having gotten the Bible uniquely right is very low. However, this problem is mitigated if 'our movement' is an ancient movement among a myriad of latecomers to the ecclesiastical scene. In that case, there is a logical basis for distinguishing 'our movement' from its contemporary competitors.
  • 2 Throughout this post, 'catholic' with a lower-case 'c' is used in the sense of 'universal' and 'orthodox' with a lower-case 'o' is used in the sense of 'mainstream, established'. These terms are to be distinguished from the upper-case Catholic and Orthodox which refer respectively to specific ecclesiastical movements/institutions (although the Catholic and Orthodox Churches clearly apply these terms to themselves because they consider themselves to be catholic and orthodox).
  • 3 At a stretch one might claim that some anti-Trinitarian stirrings occurred in the 1400s, e.g. in the writings of Lorenzo Valla, but there does not seem to be evidence from the 15th century of anything that could be called a non-Trinitarian Christian community.
  • 4 Deane, Jennifer Kolpacoff (2011). A History of Medieval Heresy and Inquisition. Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield, p. 106.
  • 5 Numerous claims in Eyre's books were criticized by another Christadelphian writer, Ruth McHaffie, in a book called Finding Founders and Facing Facts, which I haven't read and which is unfortunately out of print. Christadelphian apologist Jonathan Burke describes the book as 'exhaustively researched' and states that it demonstrates 'misreading or misrepresentation of a number of [Eyre's] sources, but observes that McHaffie still agreed with Eyre that 'certain Christadelphian beliefs were represented in various historical Christian groups' (Burke, Jonathan (2013). Living on the Edge: Challenges to Faith. Lively Stones Publishing, p. 1 n. 3.) 'Certain Christadelphian beliefs' 'represented in various historical Christian groups' obviously falls far short of the historical claim made in this objection.
  • 6 Unless, that is, it is willing to concede that Nicene Trinitarian Christianity did constitute the household of faith for many centuries, and to call Nicene Trinitarian Christianity its legitimate historical-ecclesiastical parent. In this case two additional questions present themselves: how did a church nourished by Christ hold a grievous doctrinal error as its central creed for many centuries, and how could a 'child movement' repudiate the core doctrines of its legitimate parent?
  • 7 In addition to citing warning passages like Acts 20:29-31 and 2 Tim. 4:3-4, Christadelphians offer a radical interpretation of apocalyptic passages concerning the eschatological 'Antichrist' figure, arguing that such passages predict the political success of 'apostate' Christianity under Constantine and the subsequent rise of the papacy. Space does not allow a discussion of such passages here, but suffice it to say that this reading of biblical apocalyptic has no standing in biblical scholarship, conservative or liberal. I have previously critiqued one particularly egregious error that contributes to this theory, namely the identification of the 'male child' of Rev. 12:5 as a usurping Constantine (in context, the male child clearly denotes Christ). The Constantine interpretation of Rev. 12:5 is so obviously wrong that it raises serious doubts about the competence of its proponents as expositors of Scripture.

Saturday 12 July 2014

Christmas in July: Where did this holiday come from, and should it be celebrated?

For many Christians, Christmas is the highlight of the liturgical calendar. Indeed, for some nominal Christians it is practically the only event in the liturgical calendar. Other Christians, however, reject this holiday in view of its lack of biblical warrant, alleged pagan roots, or contemporary commercialization. How did Christmas come about, and should it be observed today?

By 336 A.D., Christmas, held on December 25, marked the beginning of the festal year in Rome.1It is difficult to determine how much earlier than this the observance originated, with most scholars opting for a date in the late third century or early fourth century. A couple of earlier Christian writers speculated about the date of Christ's birth but gave no indication of a festival associated with it. In fact, the early third century Christian writer Origen decried the practice of celebrating birthdays and observed that it was something that sinners, not saints, got involved with.
“The whole discussion communicates a general attitude held by some early Christians that birthdays were something only ‘pagans’ (non-Christians) celebrated, not good Christians.”2
What can be said with certainty is that there was no observance of Christmas in the apostolic age or for several generations thereafter. This absence is important for anyone with a restorationist vision of Christianity:
“Restorationism, or Christian primitivism, is an ideology that identifies early Christianity (variously defined) as the timeless norm for Christian doctrine and practice. Restorationism’s adherents seek to replicate this normative ‘early Christianity’ in their own times.”3
For anyone who views the doctrine and practice of the apostolic age as normative to the exclusion of later developments in the patristic church, Christmas will likely appear as an unwelcome innovation. This probably explains, at least in part, why some restorationist groups either reject Christmas (e.g. Jehovah's Witnesses) or view it with some ambivalence (Christadelphians).

Does Christmas have pagan roots? There are two main hypotheses concerning how December 25 came to be the date on which Christ's birthday was celebrated: the History of Religions hypothesis and the Calculation hypothesis.4 The History of Religions hypothesis posits that Christians of the early fourth century, with their new-found legal backing under Constantine, hijacked an existing pagan holiday known as Natalis Solis Invicti. This holiday was a commemoration of the unconquered sun-god which coincided with the winter solstice. With biblical backing for the use of sun imagery in relation to Christ (Malachi 4:2), and a festal vacuum left by the increasing conversion of pagans to Christianity, it is argued that Christians appropriated Natalis Solis Invicti to mark Christ's birth.

The Calculation hypothesis holds that early Christians held a highly symbolic view of time in which God only worked in whole numbers and not fractions. Persons regarded as great in God's eyes would die on the same day as they were born. Christ was regarded to have died on March 25, based on calculations between the Jewish and Julian calendars. Thus his conception (i.e. the Annunciation, regarded as more theologically significant than his actual birth) was also dated to March 25, from which it was inferred that he was born on December 25.

These two hypotheses are not mutually exclusive,5 so the symbolic calculations may have provided the impetus for the Christian takeover of Natalis Solis Invicti. Importantly, neither one lends any credibility to the view that Christ was actually born on December 25, which must be regarded as extremely unlikely. If the History of Religions hypothesis is correct, then Christmas does indeed have its roots in paganism. However, it represents a reaction against paganism. While it may also suggest a willingness to accommodate former pagans, this is not necessarily a bad thing, as “the early Christians had little choice but to adapt to the surrounding Hellenized-Roman culture if they had any pretensions to universality.”6

Neither of these hypotheses fully explains why the church began to celebrate Christmas. It is unlikely that the need to replace former pagan holidays in the calendar with some Christian analogue can entirely account for the invention of Christmas. Some scholars have tentatively suggested that the Arian controversy played a role in the spread of Christmas observance. Since Arians placed less emphasis on the incarnation than proponents of Nicene orthodoxy, Christmas may have been promoted in line with anti-Arian polemic.7. Kochenash has argued in an unpublished work that the origin of Christmas coincided with the development of a belief that certain spaces and times were inherently sacred, which had not been part of Christian belief in prior centuries in which house churches were the main place of worship.8

What is the significance of Christmas today? From a secular standpoint it has been heavily commercialized:
“The massive production, advertising and marketing essential to the stability and health of the retail sector of the economy in developed countries serves as the secular form of the feast, the content of which derives not only from the incarnation in the salvation history of Christian belief, but even beyond Christianity in a complex of folklore, custom, art, familial bonding, common values and personal and collective memories. The Gospel story of the birth of Christ secures the base, the original core, sometimes amounting to only a barely-detectible pretext, for the feast in its contemporary manifestation; yet the story is not in itself determinative of what Christmas is.”9
Forbes observes that many of the cultural features of Christmas observance in the contemporary West derive from pre-Christian winter solstice festivals such as the Roman Saturnalia or the Yule/Jul of northern Europe.10

Nevertheless, in Christian communities today which emphasize the religious aspect of Christmas observance, the liturgical context depends largely on the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke. In such situations, the historical event of Christ's birth, which is portrayed in Scripture as a joyous occasion, is the focal point of the celebration. For me this suggests that, although the origins of Christmas are somewhat dubious and although this holiday is heavily exploited by commercial interests today, there exists a potential to rehabilitate Christmas into an observance that glorifies God. This is my vision. However, I believe there is a warrant for freedom in Christ with respect to the observance or non-observance of Christmas. As Paul says, 
"5 One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God...13 Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer." (Romans 14:5-6, 13)
From a restorationist point of view, the observance of Christmas can be legitimately called an un-biblical corruption of the purity of apostolic worship. However, for those communities which allow for a sense of history within the church,11 Christmas can be viewed as a tradition which, in spite of its shaky origins, rightly encourages celebration of the birth of the Saviour.


1 Roll, S.K. (1995). Toward the Origins of Christmas. Peeters Publishers, p. 174.
2 Forbes, B.D. (2008). Christmas: A Candid History. University of California Press, p. 18.
3 Dunnavant, A.L. (2012). Restorationism. In B.J. & J.Y. Crainshaw (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Religious Controversies in the United States, Vol. 2. ABC-CLIO.
4 Roll, S.K. op. cit., p. 50.
5 Roll, S.K. op. cit., p. 108.
6 Roll, S.K. op. cit., p. 69.
7 Roll, S.K. op. cit., p. 174.
8 Kochenash, M. (n.d.) The Origin of Christmas in Early Christian Sacred Space. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/5226888/The_Origin_of_Christmas_in_Early_Christian_Sacred_Space.
9 Roll, S.K. op. cit., p. 269.
10 Forbes, B.D. op. cit., pp. 3-11.
11 It has been said that one of the central themes of primitivism (a term roughly synonymous with restorationism) is “a rejection of any sense of history.” (Hughes, R.T. (1995). The Meaning of the Restoration Vision. In R.T. Hughes (Ed.), The Primitive Church in the Modern World (ix-xviii). University of Illinois Press, p. x).