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.