The effect of Christian creeds on civilization


creeds-and-councils

Do ideas shape society, and if so, how? If you don’t know how to answer the question, “Do you understand the basic connections between Christian creeds and civilization?” then this article might help you get started. . . .

It’s understood by even its detractors that Christianity transformed the world, but what many might not realize is that this did not happen by accident. They don’t realize this because they have public school educations.

Modern PhD’s get their degree by researching some highly specialized area of their field. They dedicate years of concentrated study there and become experts. They may be the only expert in the world in that particular corner of academia, but they will be an expert. They will grasp all the fine details.

In the early years of the church, great Christians of the day came together and debated the finer details of the faith. Indeed, they have been ridiculed in retrospect for debating over so-called trifles in some cases because the difference, literally, was one iota.

There are differences between the motivation that drives the modern academics to seek PhDs and that which drove the ancient church fathers to debate the finer points of the faith. The modern PhD seeks high salaries and tenure; the ancient Christians did it out of an urgent need to preserve the faith and drive out the snakes that had slithered into their midst.

It is not readily apparent how peculiar theological questions are connected to the shape and form of civilization, questions like:

“Is Jesus of the same essence as the Father, or of a similar essence?”

and

“Just how did Christ’s divinity and his manhood exist together within Him?”

Those links have been intentionally obscured by modern education. The modern curriculums are State-sanctioned; they teach loyalty to the State. Any ideas that are hostile to the State are treated with hostility by the State and, therefore, by the State’s priests: its tax-funded public school teachers and professors.

POLITICS AND BELIEF

The basis of a man’s belief system, his faith, determines what form of government he will establish. Whether Christian or pagan, a person’s approach to politics depends on what he believes about the nature of politics: what is the extent that can be accomplished with politics? What should be accomplished with politics? His view of the nature of politics, including its limits and its function, depends on his belief about the nature of mankind.

There were many councils called by the Church since its inception, but here I’ll only review two of them: the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) and the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD). Both debated over two important Christian doctrines, and both drew bold boundaries between orthodoxy and heresy by sharpening the distinctions of the basic Christian faith.

The earliest (and oldest) creed is the Apostles Creed. It was not created by the Apostles, but it is given its name because it summarizes the content of their New Testament teachings. It’s actually a later development of the Old Roman Creed. The Apostles Creed doesn’t necessarily pre-date the Nicene Creed as we know it today, but the Old Roman Creed probably does.

The Old Roman Creed was a basic statement of the Christian faith. The most basic statements are those like “Jesus is Lord,” or “Jesus is the Son of God.” But there were those that held beliefs contrary to Scripture and yet still called themselves Christians, like the Docetists, who denied that Jesus ever actually had a body. They could confess to believe “Jesus is Lord,” even though they denied he had a body, and still call themselves Christians. So, additional phrases like “Who was born from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, Who under Pontius Pilate was crucified and buried,” became necessary to block heresies which contradicted Scripture. With the addition of that phrase, you could no longer be called a Christian if you believed Jesus is Lord and yet denied he had a physical body.

Arius was one of the first major villains. He took what was probably the content of the Old Roman Creed and reinterpreted it. He could sincerely confess it in its entirety and believe it, but because of the way he defined words in his own mind the creed didn’t have the same meaning as when a true Christian recited it. He, and his beliefs, became very popular.

SAME SUBSTANCE, OR SIMILAR SUBSTANCE?

At first glance, it is not necessarily intuitive how believing that Jesus Christ is of a similar nature, instead of the same nature, as God the Father leads to imperial tyranny instead of liberty. When studied in the academic environment of modern colleges and universities, this particular debate, as well as all of the historical Christian councils, will probably be presented as boring and bland as possible.

That’s because the books and the courses are written and taught by liberals and other statists sympathetic to the viewpoint that mankind’s hope, his salvation, lies in politics and a centralized State vested with absolute power. The history of the United States is basically the constant struggle of Statists to nudge its decentralized, republican government closer and closer to an empire run by a supreme ruler, following the same pattern of ancient Rome. Any rival faith which declares this particular faith void, fruitless, doomed to failure, and heretical is made self-consciously their enemy.

So, obviously, these academics would not be keen on examining the consequences of these “trivial” matters which the ancient Church fathers debated. They result to boredom and ridicule in order to obfuscate the significance and importance of the issues that were at stake.

Arianism was one of the first major controversies the Church faced. It was settled in Nicaea in 325 AD, which is where the Nicene Creed was formulated as a basic statement of orthodoxy. The big debate could be seen as a debate over the letter “i”: does it belong, or doesn’t it? Despisers of Christianity ridicule this battle to suppress its importance. Edward Gibbon, an 18th century historian openly hostile to religion, wrote “I cannot forbear reminding the reader that the difference between Homoousion and Homoiousion is almost invisible to the nicest theological eye.”

The battle centered around two different Greek words: homoousios and homoiousios. They differ in spelling only by the letter “i” in the middle (an iota’s difference), but the ideas each word conveys make all the difference in the world.

Homoousios can be translated as “of the same substance.” Homoiousios can be translated as “of similar substance.” The question at hand that was so vehemently debated was this: was Jesus Christ of the same substance/essence (homoousios) as God the Father, or was he of similar substance (homoiousios)?

The representatives of each side were Arius, who professed Christ as similar substance, and Athanasius, who declared Christ to be the same substance as God the Father.

Arius believed that God the Father was superior to the Son in every way. He believed the Father was “unbegotten,” while the Son was “begotten.” Essentially, he stated that Jesus was a creature, created by God the Father, and of finite duration — not eternal with the Father. Arius elevated Christ to the highest position among all creatures, but nevertheless Christ was just a creature. This is in contradiction with the first three verses of John’s gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.

The implications of the Arian belief were significant. First, God cannot be known by even Christ, the highest of all creatures, who is presumably the most capable. This God becomes unknowable and irrelevant. He cannot be known by Jesus, so Jesus is incapable of telling us anything about God. This eliminates Christ as being someone of importance: if God created Jesus as the highest of all creatures, then though it is impossible for any creature higher in majesty than Christ to be created, there can be others created equal to Christ in height, power, and glory. This opens the door to other men in history professing to speak on behalf of God.

Knowing how human nature works, men tend to lend more authority to any authoritative figure in the here-and-now than to those who walked the earth in ages past. It is always a king or emperor or pope-like character who steps into this role.

Next, since Jesus Christ is incapable of knowing God because God is ineffable, and since it then follows that Jesus is incapable of communicating any knowledge or information about him if he can’t know him, this eliminates the Bible as authoritative. Arius, in his Thalia, expressed it thusly:

In brief, God is inexpressible to the Son.
For he is in himself what he is, that is, indescribable,
So that the son does not comprehend any of these things or have the understanding to explain them.

If Christ and Scripture are irrelevant, then who determines good and bad, right from wrong, lawful from unlawful?

The age-old philosophical problem of the one and the many is answered by Christianity, which expresses the equal ultimacy of the one and the many. This is the unique result of the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the Triune God: one God in three persons. By eliminating Jesus Christ, and implicitly the Holy Ghost, from a plane of equal ultimacy with God the Father, Arianism elevates THE ONE as the ultimate form of being. As Rushdoony put it in Chapter Two of The Foundations of Social Order, pre-Christian paganism tended to exalt “the state as the divine-human order and politics as the way of salvation.” By obliterating the doctrine of the Trinity, Arianism found a way to twist Christian doctrine into disguised pagan statism. “The One” found its ultimate expression in the One World State.

As it turned out, Arius was an imperialist, and so were his supporters. The Emperor Constantine declared tolerance for Christianity in a push to strengthen and unify the Roman empire. When the dispute first broke out between Bishop Alexander and Arius, Constantine condemned their argumentation as petty trifling over “small and very insignificant questions,” ones which were dividing the people of God and, thus, the empire. As Roman emperor, he believed it was up to him to, in accordance with the old Roman mythology, bring unity and order to the world. He was certainly a Christian, though a misguided one, believing that he was Jesus Christ’s viceregent. As Christ administered from heaven, the Roman emperor was appointed to administer all of the earthly affairs of Christendom on Christ’s behalf. So, he called the Council of Nicaea in an attempt to end the division within the Church and foster unity and harmony. The council refused a compromise, ending by declaring anathema those who held the beliefs of Arianism.

As Rushdoony said, “the vaguer the doctrines of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost were made, the more clearly man emerged as the sovereign, and man’s order as the ultimate order.”

In other words, if God, eternity, and heaven become irrelevant, then mankind, history, and time take their place. The Nicene Creed, by affirming the finality of God in Jesus Christ as creator, savior, lawgiver, and judge closed the door to mankind in general, and tyrants in particular, ever taking Jesus’ place. It dealt a blow to imperialism and the idea of a central figure in time and on earth from which all power flows (i.e. an emperor).

DUAL NATURE

The Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD debated the relationship between Christ’s divinity and his humanity. It may be difficult to understand at first how the debate over Christ’s dual nature is connected to civilization and government, but it is vital to their form — and their extent.

Chalcedon described Christ, with regards to his dual nature as human and divine, using the following attributes:

  1. They were not confused.
  2. They did not change.
  3. They were not divided.
  4. They were not separated.

The council formulated this by saying that Christ is recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation. They each mean the following:

  1. The divine nature did not displace Jesus’ human nature after their union. This was Apollinaris‘ belief, which implied that Christ’s body was more or less invaded by the divine and consumed by it. Nor was Christ’s body actually divine as a result of a thorough mixture of the two natuers (i.e. his flesh could not be considered to be God because it became mixed with God).
  2. The human could not change into the divine, or become divine. Nor did any part of the divine become human.
  3. One was not divided in two to become the other. What was once merely human could not be split to become both human and divine, or vice versa. The divine could not be divided, a piece broken off, to become human.
  4. Jesus was not two persons (with two personalities) occupying a single body. This would be akin to schizophrenia.

As Van Til has put it, the last two items prevent diminishing the reality of Christ’s work and person. Christ’s humanity is not to be diminished. There has been a significant attempt within and from without the church to overly humanize Christ, to “demythologize” him, to remove the source of his meaning from the eternal realm and to place it squarely in the historical realm. There has been equal attempt to elevate his merely human character to the realm of the divine as a model whose footsteps we can all hope to follow.

All four cases guard against the role of sin and man’s ethical failure being diminished or annulled. If Man can become God, then obviously there is no permanent ethical shortcoming that prohibits him from attaining this goal; attempts are made at becoming better than human by swearing off meat or resisting the pleasures of the flesh. Whatever is required for man to climb the ladder to ascend from humanity to divinity, it’s a matter of following procedure.

Alternatively, if God can divinize man, then again, there is no permanent stain of sin which God would not be loathe to touch; we just need to unlock the correct signal which attracts God. This has been attempted through mysticism.

If man is part of the divine, or capable of becoming divine, then the question becomes: what’s the ultimate manifestation of man? One answer throughout history has been the State. It may be the State as run by a central emperor, or by a plurality of individual men as under the republic of Rome. But in all cases the State is seen as the ultimate lawgiver. It issues the decrees, either through the sole voice of the emperor or a plurality of voices joined together in unity, that give order to civilization. By ordering civilization, it provides order to reality and meaning to history.

Prior to Christ, pagan cultures would establish empires that were run by the raw power exercised by its tyrant leader. These leaders were divinized, being seen as the ultimate manifestation of heaven on earth. They were the link between mankind and the divine. The citizens of the empire participated in the divine by serving the empire. Their citizenship under the empire was their ticket to heaven.

After Christ’s resurrection and ascension, this basis for empire building was nullified because men were taught that man was not God. The Roman empire had no problem acknowledging other religions as long as everyone ultimately worshipped Ceasar as the highest divinity. People could worship any, and as many, gods as they wanted, as long as they would acknowledge that Caesar was the highest power and arbiter of truth. They had to recognize Rome’s as the ultimate jurisdiction. On these points, Christians rebelled, and so they were persecuted. They recognized civil government generally, and Rome and Caesar particularly, for what they really were: subordinate to Christ. Christ’s laws were the highest law. Christ held ultimate and final jurisdiction. He issued his law, and he gave the civil magistrate the sword in order to enforce them (Romans 13:1-4). He did not give it authority to legislate laws contrary to his own.

CONCLUSION

The historical Church councils defined Trinitarian Christianity, and that definition prohibits any legitimate kingship or emperorship on earth. Trinitarian Christianity leads to liberty under God, not tyranny under man.

Modern humanism has overtaken Western politics as the Church has retreated from the culture wars. It has retreated because of its pessimisstic eschatologies. This will change as time moves on. During and following the economic disruption heralded by the Great Default, it will become obvious that the world isn’t ending; it seemed like it was ending, but as it turns out history will continue. There will be no premature rapture until all the world is Christianized. We aren’t there yet. Then, the Church will finally start looking to the future. It will return to the historic creeds and resume its work.

The creeds have settled only the first point of the covenant: God. It has not yet settled the remaining four points: man, law, sanctions, and eschatology. This will come in time.

For more information, pick up a copy of Rushdoony’s book, The Foundations of Social Order.

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2 responses to “The effect of Christian creeds on civilization

  1. Pingback: The breakup of Baptist culture in the American South | Rebuild Your Biblical Worldview

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