Monday, January 29, 2007

Christian Fratricide?
One thing that has most disheartened me in recent years is an intense dispute that now threatens to divide the denomination of which I am a member. This is very bad, but to make matters worse, I am convinced that the issue over which there has been so much heated rhetoric is no more than a tempest in a teapot.

The current problem in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) has been brewing for a number of years and may come to a head at the next General assembly. I fear that Louisiana Presbytery, the epicentre of the crisis, will be shattered by this situation.

While reading Socrates Scholasticus’ Ecclesiastical History of the early church, I was struck by the turbulence that took place in the church, among orthodox believers, following the great council of Nicea (325 AD). At Nicea the Church condemned the dangerous heresy of Arianism, it also excommunicated and condemned Arius, a presbyter and founder of the heresy.

Arius had taught that the Son of God was a created being and not eternal God, a teaching similar to modern day Jehovah’s Witnesses. In replying to the Arian controversy the council wrote and approved most of what we today call the Nicene Creed. In writing this statement of belief, the Bishops of the Church had to condemn Arianism and also avoid an earlier heresy then known as Sabellianism, (also called Modalistic Monarchianism and Patripassianism).

The Sabellian heresy had been condemned in the pervious century. Sabellianism, like Arianism, denied the doctrine of the Trinity. Sabellius, a 3rd century minister, taught something akin to the doctrine of God that is found among modern “Oneness” Pentecostals. In the Sabellian view God is not triune, but instead he only appears to us in different ways or modes. Here God appears as Father, he also appears as Son and some times as Holy Spirit. These are not different persons of the one God, but simply different modes by which God reveals Himself. The teachings of Sabellius were condemned in the previous century.

Sabellius had used the Greek word homoousios (i.e. same substance) when talking of the relationship of God and the differing modes in which God appeared. By the time the Council of Nicea came about, this word had some serious heretical baggage tied to it.

The Council of Nicea struggled to write a statement that would counter Arianism and at the same time avoid the errors of Sabellianism. Here is part of the wording from the Nicean Creed as we see it today:

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.

The Nicene Creed is more cumbersome than the Apostles Creed, because it goes out of its way to steer a safe passage between the two anti-Trinitarian heresies of Arius and Sabellius. Today most Christians would agree that they did a good job, but this was not the case in the fourth Century. The words “of one substance” that you see in the creed above was the catalyst for an intense internal struggle in the Church. The Nicene Creed was originally written in Greek and the word that is translated “one substance” is none other than the heretically tainted homoosios.

The writers of the Creed took great pains to avoid Sabellianism and Arianism in writing the Creed. But that one word, homoousos, was too much for many Christians to swallow. They could not read the word without associating it with the condemned teachings of Sabellius, and so they read Sabellianism into the Creed, even though the Creed went out of its way to clearly avoided that position.

Debate and argument spiralled out of control among the orthodox, and the Arian heretics took this opportunity to exploit orthodox infighting. Remember, those involved in this new fight were Trinitarian Christians, but both sides accused the other of gross heresy.

Socrates Scholasticus (died 438 AD) describes the situation. “Yet as we ourselves have discovered from various letters which the bishops wrote to one another after the Synod, the term homoousios troubled some of them. So that while they occupied themselves in a too minute investigation of its import, they roused the strife against each other; it seemed not unlike a contest in the dark; for neither party appeared to understand distinctly the grounds on which they calumniated one another.”

Each side pointed an accusing finger at the other, but neither side seems to have heard what its opponents actually said. This is an all too frequent occurrence, and I believe it is playing a big part in PCA infighting today.

Socrates continues, “Those who objected to the word homoousios, conceived that those who approved it favored the opinion of Sabellius and Montanus; they therefore called them blasphemers, as subverting the existence of the Son of God” and the defenders of homoousios responded responded in kind, “And again the advocates of this term, charging their opponents with polytheism, inveighed against them as introducers of heathen superstitions.”

Remember, those on both sides in this post-Nicene fight were all Trinitarians. Socrates concludes this chapter of his book this way, “In consequence of these misunderstandings, each of them wrote as if contending against adversaries: and although it was admitted on both sides that the Son of God has a distinct person and existence, and all acknowledged that there is one God in three Persons, yet from what cause I am unable to divine, they could not agree among themselves, and therefore could in no way endure to be at peace.”

This is a sad commentary in Church history, and if it were an isolated incident, it could be dismissed as an unhappy anomaly. But it is not an isolated event; things like this happen time and time again and they are happening right this moment in the PCA.

The orthodox believers had routed the heretical enemies of the Gospel. Then they turned on one another. This allowed the heretics to return. The Arians returned and struggled to gain control of the Church. They even seemed to be victorious for a time.

There are plenty of very real battles that orthodox Christians need to be engaged in. There are plenty of very real enemies, and every time we turn on one another over trivial doctrinal issues, we give aid to and comfort to the enemies of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Coram Deo,

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

God's Word or Human Wisdom?

In 1079 the Medieval Latin Church officially made it unlawful for the clergy to marry. We know from the Scriptures that the Apostles, except for Paul, were all married. St. Paul was a single man. He tells us that he wished others also had his gift of celibacy, but he never tries to impose a single lifestyle on the clergy, which he played a part in establishing across the Roman Empire.

It is clear from Paul’s writings that a single man can be a minister, but in his first epistle to Timothy and in his epistle to Titus he gives specific requirements for ministers of the Gospel. In his letter to Timothy, Paul says “A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife...” (! Tim 3:2) and then to Titus he gives these instructions, “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee: If any be blameless, the husband of one wife…”

So it is clear from the example of the Apostles, most of them were married, and from the letters of St. Paul, that a married clergy was the normal ordering of things. Men have a tendency to believe their own human wisdom is better than the Wisdom of God expressed in the Scriptures. This is what the Western Church did in 1079; it exchanged God’s wise council on the subject of the clergy and marriage for the wisdom of men.

There had been attempts in the Church long before 1079 to do this. There was a similar attempt at the Council of Nicea (325 AD). The early church historian, Socrates Scholasticus, give us an account, in his Ecclesiastical History, the story about account of this much earlier attempt to replace the wisdom of God with that of men.

He writes, “It seemed fit to the bishops to introduce a new law into the Church, that those who were in holy orders, I speak of bishops, presbyters, and deacons, should have no conjugal intercourse with the wives whom they had married while still laymen.” This suggestion met with general approval at Nicea, but Paphnutius, a bishop from Egypt, stood in opposition to the measure. Here is some of the account, “Paphnutius having arisen in the midst of the assembly of bishops, earnestly entreated them not to impose so heavy a yoke on the ministers of religion: asserting that ‘marriage itself is honorable, and the bed undefiled’; urging before God that they ought not to injure the Church by too stringent restrictions. ‘For all men,’ said he, ‘cannot bear the practice of rigid continence; neither perhaps would the chastity of the wife of each be preserved’: and he termed the intercourse of a man with his lawful wife chastity… And these sentiments he expressed, although himself without experience of marriage, and, to speak plainly, without ever having known a woman: for from a boy he had been brought up in a monastery, and was specially renowned above all men for his chastity.”

It was the custom then that unmarried men, receiving Holy Orders, were expected to remain single and celibate, but married men too were also admitted to the clergy. Socrates tells us that “The whole assembly of the clergy assented to the reasoning of Paphnutius: wherefore they silenced all further debate on this point, leaving it to the discretion of those who were husbands to exercise abstinence if they so wished in reference to their wives.”

In 325 the Wisdom of God, which was reflected in the words of Bishop Paphnutius, carried the day. In 1079 The Western Church rejected the Wisdom of this good bishop, St. Paul and God and imposed celibacy on the Clergy. The price paid for this folly since that day has been very high.

Coram Deo,


Sunday, January 14, 2007

What About Discussing Christian Unity?

One of the things that I am really bothered by is Christians being unkind and disdainful of other Christians over non-essential points of doctrine. I believe that points of doctrine are very important. I also don’t believe we should compromise our doctrinal beliefs for the sake of greater unity.

At the very same time I do believe that Christian unity is important – VERY IMPORTANT. I believe we can have unity within a greater diversity of denominational and doctrinal differences. We are to be united in Christ. This unity in Christ is our catholicity, with a little “c.”

Rome is not and cannot be a point of unity for the whole of the Christian Church. The Roman Catholic Church would like to make the Roman Pontiff be the point of Christian unity, but this can never be. Rome has erred just as every other denomination. The Pope is not without error in matters of faith, despite its claim to the contrary.

At the council of Trent the Roman Church officially cursed all Protestants. I hold to the early Protestant teachings and on many of those points Rome has officially said that I should be “anathema” which means cursed, which means, “go to hell.”

At Vatican II the Roman Church played that issue down and called Protestant Christians things like “separated brethren” and “brothers” but these titles are new and go counter to what Rome has said for at least 800 years. I point this out in the blog article Unum Sanctum and Vatican II. In Unum Sanctum (US) Pope Boniface VIII declares that all those that are not under the direct authority of the Pope "anathema." In other words, all Protestants and Eastern Christians who are not joined to Rome are going to hell. The 16th century Council of Trent anathematised Protestants many times over on a number of doctrinal issues that separated them from Rome. Vatican I reaffirmed these things and declare the Roman Pontiff to be without error when he spoke ex cathedra (from the chair of Peter), and of course Unum Sanctum and Trent are such statements and so the anathemas against Eastern Christians and Protestants are without error and still stand.

How then are we now, since Vatican II, merely separated brethren? We must be anathematised (going to hell) brethren. I’ve seen Catholics fidget around on this issue and I’ve seen them say straight out “Yes, if you are not a Roman Catholic you are going to go to hell.”

Vatican II and the Catholic Catechism have sufficiently equivocated on the issue of whether or not non-Catholics can be saved. I’ve seen Roman Catholics who are quick to quote from these late 20th century pronouncements and declare that we Protestants can be and often are truly saved. I’ve also read Catholic arguments that say that while the wording is toned way down, the Roman Catholic Church still believes and teaches that you can not be saved outside the RCC.

I hope we can get an unequivocal official answer from Rome on this issue. I like to talk with my RCC family and friends, I just wish they would make up their minds as to where I stand as a Protestant.

If I am not going to hell, then Umum Sanctum and Trent are in error. If they are in error, than Vatican I is in error as well and Rome has destroyed all her own claims to supremacy. One day the doctrine/facade of an infallible Pope and church will fall away and be no longer defensible. Maybe then we will be able to really discuss Christian catholicity with our RCC brethren.

Coram Deo,