Kamis, 15 Juni 2017

finding alexandria

finding alexandria

last time, we talked about a fewof the doctrinal disputes that tore the early church apart. even while they were being persecuted from the outside by the emperors in rome. disputes that, to them, seemed so important that they were often a bigger concern than getting thrown to the lions for their faith. disputes that have been passed down to us for 2,000 years because they were so important to the early church that they made their way into the bible. but the outside pressures on christianity are about to end. constantine is busy repealing the laws against christians,

and in 313 ce, with the edict of milan, he restores essentially full rights to christians within his empire. but this, itself, brings up another tricky problem: what do you do with those who had buckled under the pressure of the persecution? those who had recantedor turned their back on the faith when threatened with imprisonment or death? what do you do with the fact that so many of those who had been asked to turn over the scripturesor to sacrifice to pagan gods were not merely converts to the religion,but even priests?

can you let them take an equal footingwith those who had stood firm? can you let those who had wavered in their faith administer the faith? and again, this question split the church. in north africa, a bishop named sicilianwas elected the bishop of carthage but he was a traditor, or one of those who had handed over christian scriptures when threatened with persecution,and so his election was contested. in general, most of the christian population was alright with accepting back into the fold those who had lapsed during a time of greatest trial. but, especially in north africa, there was a group that was far less forgiving

they viewed any sacraments given by such a bishop invalid and so soon elected their own bishop, donatus, and refused to acknowledge the authority of sicilian; the bishop recognized by the church in rome. as letters flew back and forth and sermons were given, donatus decided to do an end run around those who were trying to unseat him and sent a letter to the emperor directly,asking him to weigh in. this was basically unheard of. the church settled church matters.

the emperor settled matters of state.but here it was, and constantine agreed to step in. now, this sets a precedentfor hundreds of years of emperors, if not directly commanding the church, at least having a great deal of sway over church matters. it effectively broke down the barrier betweenchurch and state. but, at that time, no one knew that. and that's certainly not what donatus was thinking about. he was probably just trying to figure out how to get a fair shake when, right then, the only people who were allowed to judge his case were the very people he had essentially rebelled against. and the emperor was willing to grant him that.

constantine designated that a hearing be set with the bishop of rome and three other bishops from gaul that he would pick personally to make sure that they had no stake in the matter. then he went off to do other imperial things. but when the donatists' case came up, the bishop of rome had ninja'd in an additional fifteen bishops that just so happened to agree with him. so, as you can probably guess, the trial didn't go so well for donatus and his donatists. in fact, it went so poorly that,not only was their case thrown out, but their supporters were branded as "heretical."so, of course,

donatus was pretty miffed,and wrote the emperor again, saying "hey, look, there were about a dozen-and-a-quarter more guys in that committee than you appointed." "can we get, like, another, fairer hearing, maybe?" so constantine, interested in bringing the church back together said, "eh, sure." "and this time, i'm just going to call a bunch of bishops from all over and have them hear you out, so that way it can't be unfair." and so that's what he did. the donatists, again, made their case, and, again, their case was rejected.

this time, too, their views were branded as "heretical," largely, as i understand it, because it calls into question the sacrament of penance if there's something — even something as momentous as turningyour back on the religion — that you can't atone for. so the donatists went back to africa and sent constantine a third letter. but, by this point, he had just about had it. he was actually hanging out at the trial this time,and he'd felt like they'd gotten a fair shake. "what do you guys want?!"

meanwhile, conflicts between the two viewpoints had begun to escalate to violence in north africa. and that was it. constantine basically said,"don't make me come down there," and threatened to crush them all under his sandal. but then he got distracted by an itty-bitty civil war,and had no time for this ridiculousness. so the donatists essentially became a major splintered church in north africa that would be a thorn in the side of the empirefor years to come. and in the countryside, it would survive right through justinian's reconquest of north africa centuries later. in fact, the donatists would later harbor anti-roman rebels, and some scholars have even argued that the disunity they cause weakened the province

and essentially made it indefensible during the arab conquests. so there's one crack in the unity of the empire and the church that doesn't ever go away. now, it's time to talk about the next even bigger one:arianism because, just as the donatists question was flaring up in carthage, another schism was beginning to spin out of control in alexandria, where a bishop named arius was preaching a brand-new understanding of the trinity, which means... i'm going to now try and define the trinity on the internet. okay, so it's time for disclaimer two:we are not theologians. what i'm offering here on any of this is meant as a serviceable understanding

for people interested in exploring the history that's so intimately wrapped up in these things. but there is a lot more depth that can be gone into here. and the exact definition, well,that could be debated for 2,000 years. and it has. so, that said, what is the the idea of "the trinity?" it's the concept that god is the father, the son,and the holy ghost all rolled into one. okay, so, what does that mean? well, in the loosest form,it's the idea that god the father is in heaven, god the spirit acts upon the world,

and god the son is the christ who came down in human form to wash away humanity's sins. now, that part seems simple enough,but there's one more part to it. the part that everybody fought about. in trinitarian belief, god is the father,the son, and the holy spirit. but the father is not the son nor the holy spirit,the son is not the father nor the holy spirit, and the holy spirit is neither the father nor the son. confused yet? that's okay; it's one of the most difficult concepts in the entire christian faith, and it's something that has caused more debate and infighting than almost anything else.

but hopefully that brings everybody up to speed enough so that we can talk about this radical new idea that arius was preaching. what was it? well, he was preaching that because god the father begat god the son while they were both still divine, god the son was less than god the father. they weren't co-equal and co-substantial in the way that the trinitarian formation laid out. now, this may not seem like a big deal to you, and fair enough. truth is, the local bishop at alexandria seemed to see it the same way. at first, he didn't do anything about this fractious doctrine.

but soon, it became clear that this wasn't just going away. the congregation was divided.arguments were breaking out in meetings of the faithful. it was time to step in. the bishop in alexandria called a synod, and they decided that this arian doctrine was heresy. arius was stripped of his priesthood, and he and his followers were excommunicated from the church. but it was too little too late. this idea had already spread throughout the eastern empire. this became a grueling feudthat threatened to tear the church in two. now, constantine was trying, for a number of reasons, to basically hand these christians the keys

to being the number one religion in the number one empire in the known world, and here they were squabbling worse than pagan cults. constantine was irked by this, so he sent down a cleric that he trusted to settle the matter and armed him with a letter that ends thusly: "open then for me henceforward,by your unity of judgement, "that road to the region of the east which your dissensions have closed against me. "and permit me speedily to see yourselves and all other peoples rejoicing together. "and render due acknowledgment to god in the language of praise and thanksgiving for the restoration of general concord and liberty to all."

basically he was saying, "guys, for serious, just stop fighting. let me get back to emperor stuff, please." but it just so happened that the cleric he sent down was a strident trinitarian. so, instead of finding a resolution and bringing everybody back together like constantine had asked, the cleric decided that smashing the arians in the face was a better idea, and he succeeded in basically causing a bunch of riots and not much else. so the cleric called a council to settle the matter once and for all. one where, at least theoretically, the arians would be heard out. but the emperor, probably with an exasperated sigh, wrote to him, knowing full well that this council organized of the local clergy and the clearly biased cleric that he had just send down

was just another excuse to beat on the arians, and suggested that they make it a truly universal council; inviting representatives from every district in the empire to come together and finally hammer out once and for all these squabbles that they'd been having. so that he could get back to emperoring, and spend some time founding a new capital in his own name. so join us next time as we dive intothe council of nicea; perhaps the most famous church council of all time. will they solve the problems of the christian church? will they end the schisms once and for all? find out next time!

or just take a wild guess — you'll probably be right.