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Chapter 2 ... continued

The early church knew that Jesus is not coequal with his Father

Even up to the time of Nicaea and slightly beyond, the maj­ority of church leaders did not accept the coequality of Jesus with his Father. The majority still believed, in agreement with the Bible, that Jesus was lower than and subordinate to his Father, a doc­trine which in its various forms is known as subordination­ism. In fact subor­dina­tion­ism was the “ortho­dox” position prior to Nicaea but became the “heretical” position after Nicaea. It is a his­torical fact that subordinat­ion­ism was the common orthodoxy of the church right up to the time of Athan­asius in the fourth century. (Athanasius was the most ardent pro­ponent of trinit­arian­ism in the early church.) We see this historic­al fact in statements made by two esteemed acad­emic author­ities:

Subordinationism. Teaching about the Godhead which re­gards either the Son as subordinate to the Father or the Holy Ghost as subordinate to both. It is a characteristic tendency in much of Christian teaching of the first three centuries, and is a marked feature of such otherwise ortho­dox Fathers as St. Justin and St. Irenaeus … By the stand­ards of orthodoxy esta­blished in the 4th cent., such a posit­ion came to be regarded as clear­ly heretical in its denial of the co-equality of the Three Persons of the Trinity.” (The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed., pp.1552-1553)

“With the exception of Athanasius virtually every theolo­gian, East and West, accepted some form of subordina­tionism at least up to the year 355; subordinationism might indeed, until the denoue­ment [res­olution] of the contro­versy, have been described as accepted ortho­doxy.” (R.P.C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, page xix)

The academic reputation of R.P.C. Hanson’s work in patristic studies is hard to overstate. Catholic and Protestant scholars have said of this book: “the most com­pre­hensive account of the subject in modern Eng­lish scholar­ship,” “the stand­ard English scholarly treatment of the trini­tarian controver­sies of the fourth cen­tury,” and “for almost twenty years, Hanson’s work has pro­vided the stand­ard narrative descript­ion of the doctrine and dyna­mics of the fourth-century trinitarian conflicts”.

If subordinationism was the orthodox position even as late as 355 (R.P.C. Hanson), how did the Nicene Creed of 325 manage to declare Jesus’ co­equal­ity with God? Most Christ­ians don’t know the ans­wer to this quest­ion, yet it is of the greatest importance because it concerns the central tenet of trinitar­ian­ism, that Jesus is God. So what is the answer to this question? The answer is Constantine.

Constantine

Few Christians know anything about Constantine the Great (A.D. 272–337) who be­came the sole em­peror of the Roman Empire on September 19, 324.[1] From Septem­ber 324 when he became the sole emperor to March 325 when the Council of Nicaea commenced, there was a separation of only six or sev­en months.[2] It was Constantine him­self who summoned the church leaders to his residence in Nicaea. He later spoke to them at the council, and largely dir­ected [3] the proceedings of the 300 or so church leaders called “bishops”. He was the pivot­al advocate [4] of the key word homo­ousios which was used by the council to affirm that Christ is of the “same sub­stance” as God the Father.

Let’s get this clear. The decisive creed of the church is based on the extra-­bi­blical doctrine of consubstant­iality that was ad­vanced by a Roman emperor who at the time was not even baptized, and was still the chief priest of the empire’s pagan rites! The word homo­ousios was itself unbiblical and Constantine probably received it from one of his Christian advisors (most scholars think it was Ossius, [5] the bishop of the city of Cordova in Spain).

The thoroughly pagan nature of homoousios can be seen in the following histori­cal observation: “[Ossius] pro­bably mentioned to the emper­or that the Platon­ic concept of a first and second Deity was somewhat similar to the Christ­ian belief in God the Father and his Son the Word, and how this similarity might be used in converting pagans to Christ­ianity.” [6]

The heated debates at Nicaea, mainly between trinita­rians and Arians, were not centered on Scripture (though the protago­nists on each side would sometimes invoke Scripture to sup­port their cases). Funda­mentally, both trinit­arianism and Arian­ism are unbi­blical, and both are rooted in Greek philoso­phy. The lofty Nicene phrase, “Light from light,” for example, is the teaching of emanation which was prominent in Gnosticism.

Remarkably, the early church creeds did not cite a single verse of Script­ure in support of the deity of Jesus. We must not, however, anachroni­s­tically expect the early Gentile church to rely on the Scriptures for guidance in all matters of faith. The principle of sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone) was esta­blished only much later in church history, and has never been accepted by the Catholic Church. In reality, the historic church councils regarded them­selves the final authority in all matters of faith, a position that endures in the Catholic Church to this day.

In the drafting of the Nicene Creed which Constantine parti­cipated in, he imposed [7] the word homoou­sios, the Greek equiva­lent of the Latin consub­stantialis, probably through the advice of his coun­sels. This became the pivotal word in trini­tarian­ism, yet was provided by a pag­an emperor who, as head of the Roman Empire, appointed himself the head of the Church, that is, the “Bishop of bis­hops,” at a time when he was still function­ing as the Pontifex Maximus, the chief pagan priest of the Roman Empire.[8] It makes one shudder to realize that the Nicene Creed was form­u­lated under the auspices of a still pagan Roman emper­or, and primarily for political reasons, notably the preser­vation of the unity and stability of his empire.

It is important to note that when Constantine was baptized shortly before he died, he was baptized not by a trinitarian bishop but by the Arian bis­hop Eusebius of Nicomedia! [9] What it means is that Constant­ine died an Arian, that is, as one who does not accept the deity of Jesus and his consub­stant­iality with the Father! Can anyone make sense of this? Perhaps it tells us how much or how little Constantine cared about Christian doctrine except when it could be used to further his political purposes.[10]

Will anyone still want to maintain that all this “evolved” out of the Bible? Constantine forced the church into doctrin­al unity, and overrode the major­ity who still believed in the subordination of the Son to the Father. He es­tablished the Nicene Creed as the faith of the church by command, backed by the law of the Roman Empire.[11] Constant­ine did this for the purpose of maintaining political unity in his empire. By sup­pressing dissent in the church, the freedom of the church—libertas ecclesiae—was stamped out by the many in­stances of ex­commun­icat­ion from the church and banish­ment as crim­inals under Roman law. To put it simply, one must believe that Jesus is God or face the horrible conse­quences.

Few Christians know anything about the historical develop­ment of trin­it­arian dogma and the Nicene Creed. Some may be shocked to hear that the pivotal enabler of this doctrine was the pagan Roman Emperor Con­stantine, who was not even bap­tized at the time he con­vened the Council of Nicaea in 325. He directed the proceed­ings of the council both personally and through his repre­sentatives, guid­ing the council to adopt the then controver­sial view that Jesus is coequal with the Father in one essence, and eventually making this dogma part of state law in the Roman Empire.[12] Thus we have a doctrine cen­tral to Christ­endom which was deter­mined by an emperor who at Nicaea was still function­ing as the chief priest of the Roman pa­gan deities. This, then, is the origin of official trinitarian dogma.

The unbiblical nature of homoousios

The Nicene Creed, like its key word homoousios, has no bibli­cal basis (the word appears nowhere in the Bible), which is not surprising given that the creed was drafted by an assem­bly of Gentile church leaders under the over­sight of an as yet non-Christian emperor, at a time when the Gentile church had already been losing touch with its Jewish roots even as far back as almost two centuries earlier. The New Testament, it ought to be re­mem­bered, was writ­ten by Jews with the exception of Luke–Acts.[13] The con­cepts espoused by the Nicene Creed would have sounded foreign to the NT writers.

We have seen that homoousios is unbiblical and that the early church Fathers associated its use with the Gnostics. Indeed the first man known to have used it was the Gnostic teacher Basilides (2nd century A.D.) who used homo­ousios to explain his concept of a “three­fold sonship consub­stantial with the god who is not”. We have also noted that Martin Luther vehement­ly op­posed the use of homoousios, and that NIDNTT (ed. Colin Brown) says, in agree­ment with Karl Barth, that homo­ousios has no biblical basis.

Regarding homoousios (Latin consubstantialis), Hans Küng, one of the preeminent theologians in contemporary Catholicism, says that “consubstant­ial, with its background in Greek philosophy, was incom­prehensible not only to Jews but also to Jewish Christians”. Küng continues:

Constantine himself had the unbiblical word “of the same sub­stance” (Greek homoousios, Latin consubstantialis) in­serted; later it was to cause a great controversy. The subor­dination of the Son to the one God and Father (“the” God), as was generally taught by Ori­gen and the theolog­ians of the previous period, was now re­placed by an essential, substantial equality of the Son with the Father, so that in the future it was possible to speak of God the Son and God the Father. [14]

Küng makes some important observations here. Among them is that prior to Nicaea, the teaching of the subordinat­ion of the Son to the Father was stand­ard in the church. Thus Nicaea is the tri­umph of a pow­erful min­ority in the church, and a radical depart­ure from the teaching of the church in the first and second cent­uries. There were, of course, a few leaders such as Justin Martyr and Melito of Sardis who earlier on were already taking the position that Jesus is God and as a result were promulga­ting ditheism or binitarian­ism (the be­lief in two divine persons) though not yet trinitar­ianism since they had not yet re­garded the Holy Spirit as the third divine person.

Because the Nicene Creed had deviated, as Küng points out, from the earlier teachings represented by people such as Origen the famous Alexan­drian teacher, it comes as no surprise that the deviation of the Nicene Creed from the New Testament was all the greater on account of the greater time separation. After the NT period, the teachings of the church leaders, in combinat­ion with the separation of the Gentile church from its Jewish mother church, espe­cial­ly after A.D. 135, [15] led to teachings that were be­coming pro­gressive­ly distant from the New Testament.

From the fourth century, the accept­ance of this new creed was made the determining mark and touchstone of faith for the Christian. He is re­quired to believe that Jesus is God or else he will be condemned by the church as a her­etic and by the state as a crim­inal. This is a com­plete viola­tion of the spir­it of the Bible which never prohibits anyone from exam­in­ing the Bible and coming to his or her own gen­uine conclus­ions in the pursuit of God’s truth. And since the Bible does not teach the deity of Jesus in the first place, it is doubly certain that the Bible nowhere makes sal­va­tion condition­al on believ­ing in his supposed deity. It can be said with­out any fear of contra­dict­ion that no verse in the New Testament states that one must believe that Jesus is God in order to be saved. It dem­onstrates how contrary the Nicene Creed, with its doctrinal require­ments, is to the spirit of the Word of God as taught in the New Testament.

Constantine’s Creed

These historical facts are well known to church histo­rians and patristics scholars but very few Christ­ians know anything about them. They may be sur­prised to hear from the great British patristics scholar, J.N.D. Kelly, that the Nicene Creed which established Christ’s coequality with God is in fact Constant­ine’s creed (Kelly twice calls it “his creed”).[16]

The trinitarian creed that establishes Christ as God is, let it be said again, Constantine’s creed. This historical fact doesn’t regis­ter in the minds of most Christians, just as it didn’t register in my mind when I was a trinit­arian. Looking back at my own biblical and theo­logical train­ing in England, which adds up to six years of study at two Bible colleges and a univ­ersity, I don’t recall that the historical roots of trini­tarian­ism were ever discussed, not even in courses on church his­tory. Why was this so? I frankly don’t know the ans­wer to this question. I won’t go so far as to say that there was a cover-up.

I did a careful study of the work by Dr. J.N.D. Kelly, which is still an author­itative work on early Christian doc­trines. I still have an old copy of this work which I read in my student days, with carefully written notes on the margins of every page. Dr. Kelly’s book is, however, a work on church doctrine and not a work on church history, so the his­tor­ical details wouldn’t be presented in the same way as they would in a historical work about the church (despite Dr. Kelly’s impress­ive knowledge of church history). It was not until I had read more deeply into the church history of that period that the signifi­cance of the events of that era final­ly hit me. Even though Dr. Kelly was not writing speci­fically on church his­tory, his familiarity with the subject comes out with striking clarity when he bluntly describes the Nicene Creed as “his (Con­stantine’s) creed”. Somehow the force of these words did not strike me when I first read them. How did I overlook them? This is a question I myself cannot answer. Was it because I had thought that these scho­lars, Dr. Kelly included, were Christians and probably trinitarians, so they would not mean anything negative by this statement? But how can such a state­ment be taken positively?

What is clear by now is that trinita­rian doctrine arose from what the emi­nent theologian Hans Küng calls the “realpolitik” of Constantine (real­polit­ik is a German word which means “practical politics”). In other words, Constantine was not pri­m­arily interested in any true theological stance of the Christ­ian church.[17] Christ­ian theology was probably not something that Constantine, as a non-Christian at the time, would under­stand or care to understand, for what ulti­mately mat­tered to him was the politics of his empire, its unity and stab­ility.[18]

Constantine viewed the church as an important com­ponent of his empire, so he did not tolerate any division or quarrel within the church that may threaten the empire’s unity and stability. From the per­spective of politics and govern­ance of empire, this made sense. But it also shows that the Nicene Creed, written some three hundred years into the Christ­ian era, had by then strayed far from the New Testament, far from the early Jewish church in Jerusalem, and far from the churches that Paul esta­blished through his missionary efforts.

As a trinitarian most of my life, I worked very hard to find some New Testament basis for my trinitarian faith, espec­ially for my un­wavering be­lief that Jesus is God. Although the biblical evi­dence for trinitarian­ism is truly meager, I tried to make the best of it. In retro­spect and in shame, I was unwill­ing to look at any credible evidence to the contrary, for I had simply assumed that the deity of Christ is beyond dispute. Likewise, the church, which is almost universally trini­tarian today, will not look at any evidence in Scripture that is con­trary to the doctrine it holds dear. Any scholar who ventures to point out an error in our trinitarian “exege­sis” will be ignored and even con­demned as a liberal or heretic or infidel destined for hell.

How many of us trinitarians are even remotely aware that the pillar of our faith is Constantine’s Creed? Rev. Dr. J.N.D. Kelly (1909-1997) died some years ago, so it wouldn’t be possible for us to know how he would have explained the term “his creed”. But Kelly was not a biblical scho­lar, so he might not have reflected on the con­nection between the Nicene Creed and the New Testament. But this is something that we are obliged to consider if we take the New Testament as God’s Word in which our spiritual lives are rooted and which we consider to be some­thing more than a mere collect­ion of an­cient religious docu­ments that scholars study out of academic interest.

The search for the Biblical basis of trinitarianism

It was not until the fourth century of the Christian era that the deity of Jesus gained official recogni­tion through the intervention of Constant­ine, the offi­cially pagan Roman emperor with­out whose help it wouldn’t be certain that the trinitarian party in Nicaea could have gained the official dei­fication of Jesus which later culmin­ated in the doctrine of the Trinity. It was only after trinitarianism had been established as the of­ficial doctrine of the Roman Empire, especial­ly after A.D. 381, that an effort was made to some degree of earnest­ness to see what biblical foundations, if any, could be found for this doctrine.

Formal trinitarian­ doctrine as we know it today did not initial­ly grow out of the Bible, but was the later result of a retrospective search for any bibli­cal evidence that might support the estab­lished doctrine. This under­taking has never been suc­cessful as might be expected under the historical circum­stances. To this day, trinitarians are still mining the New Testa­ment for whatever evidence they think could be used for proving the deity of Jesus. Every vague state­ment is pounced upon to serve this purpose. Even the state­ment, “I and the Father are one” (Jn.10:30), is seized upon as indicating consubstantial­ity, ignoring the fact that the same spiritual oneness is availa­ble to every believer: “But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him” (1Cor.6:17).

Since trinitarianism is not rooted in the New Testament and did not come from it, but was retroactively imposed on the Bible, it has no biblical val­idity whatsoever. Therefore, in our study of biblical monotheism and the biblical Jesus, the onus is not on us to disprove trinitar­ian­ism. Trinitarian­ism is rightly to be regarded as heret­ical for it is a creedal system that has, through the actions of its promulgators, swerved from the Bible. All trini­tarians should with fear and trembling ponder carefully on the fact that their doctrine is of Gentile origin, both pagan and Hellenistic, and was developed only after the gospel had been entrenched in the pagan na­tions in which the Gentiles lived, beginning from more than a century after the time of Christ.

Historical aftermath

The Council of Nicaea under the auspices of Constantine, who is the de facto head of the church, paved the way for making Nicaean Christianity the official state religion of the Ro­man Empire. That official step was taken by Emperor Theodosius I (together with his co-rulers Gratian and Valentin­ian II) in the Edict of Thessalonica of 380 which declared that the creed of the earlier “First Council of Nicaea” shall be the basis of the Empire’s sole recog­nized relig­ion. This new edict was to take immediate effect not just in Nicaea or Constant­inople but the whole Roman Empire.

But did this bring God’s blessings on the Roman Empire? Almost im­mediately after the edict was issued in 380, the empire began to fall apart. In fact, Theodosius himself was the last emperor to rule over both the western half and the eastern half of the Roman Empire. The Empire has never since been reunited.

The decline was so rapid that in 410, only a generation after the edict, Rome was sacked and pillaged by the Visi­goths. Its infrastructure, not­ably its water conduits and sew­age system, was destroyed, and its population was re­duced to almost nothing. The great city of a million people was event­ually reduced to a town of 10,000 as its inhabitants fled the intolerable condi­tions created by a short­age of food and water.

Does anyone see the con­nect­ion between the destruction of Rome and the esta­blishing of the Nicaean doctrine? Christian books gener­ally do not mention this fact, so few Christians know anything about it.

Does the destruction of Rome reveal something of God’s mind? This was the point of no return for the Roman Empire, and it has never since regained its ancient glory. This was the first time in 800 years that Rome had been sacked. Constant­inople, the capital of the Eastern Empire, became the “new Rome”. The western half of the empire did not sur­vive for long and the glorious empire collapsed. Meanwhile, the eastern part of the Roman Empire, which had shrunk to the region of modern-day Greece and Turkey, con­tinued on until it was con­quered by the Ottoman Muslims in 1453, and Constantinople was renamed Istanbul.

For the sack of Rome, see Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, various editions. Gibbon wrote emphatically and in detail that Christ­ianity contributed directly to the fall of Rome, and was criticized by Christians for what he wrote. There is a recent book with a similar title by the American historian James W. Ermatinger which is not a re­vision of Gib­bon’s work. In his work, Ermatinger says that “Christ­ianity in many ways contributed to the fall of the empire” (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, p.39).

We see something similar in the 2007 25th anniversary issue of Christ­ian History and Biography which has a cover story on the fall of Rome and its connection to Christianity. The article says that the Christians in Rome believed that Rome was unconquerable. Coins issued by the Roman Em­pire, now officially trinitarian, bore the words Invicta Roma Aeterna (“Eternal, Unconquerable Rome”). The article says that a few years before the horrific pillage of Rome in 410 by 40,000 “barbarians,” the Christian poet Prudent­ius wrote that Rome could not possibly fall be­cause Rome had embraced the Christian faith. He even boasted that “no barbaric enemy shatters my walls with a javelin and no man with strange weapons, attire and hairdress, wan­ders around the city he has conquered and carries off my young men”. Yet when Rome fell on August 24, 410, the calamity was so vio­lent and ruin­ous that when the great biblical scholar Jerome heard about it in Bethlehem, “he put aside his Comment­ary on Ezekiel and sat stupefied in total silence for three days.” [19]

Soon many had arrived at the conclusion that the destruct­ion of Rome was a divine judg­ment against Christians, a view that prompted Augustine to write The City of God. It was also widely believed that the fall of Rome was a fulfillment of the prophecy in Revelation 14:8 of the fall of “Babylon”.[20]

The Church’s authority to persecute heretics

Most modern versions of the Nicene Creed omit the fact that the defini­tive Nicene Creed of 325 contains a closing anathe­ma against those who do not accept the creed: “(the dissent­ers) are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church” (as translated by Philip Schaff in Creeds of Christen­dom). The Greek word used here, anathema, is much strong­er than the English word condemn, for it implies condemn­ation to hell as is seen in the three definitions of that word in BDAG: “1. that which is dedicated as a votive offering, a vot­ive offering; 2. that which has been cursed, cursed, accursed; 3. the content that is expressed in a curse, a curse”. We can rule out defin­ition 1 because the Creed would hardly regard the dis­senter as a votive offering to God. This leaves only definitions 2 and 3, which means that anyone who disa­grees with the Nicene Creed is, by the same creed, con­demned to hell.

Similarly the Athanasian Creed closes with a condemn­ation: “This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved,” as translated by Philip Schaff in Creeds of Christendom. Schaff himself disap­proves of the “damnatory clauses” of the Athanasian Creed:

THE DAMNATORY CLAUSES. The Athanasian Creed, in strong con­trast with the uncontroversial and peaceful tone of the Apostles’ Creed, begins and ends with the solemn declara­tion that the catho­lic faith in the Trinity and the Incarnation herein set forth is the indis­pensable condit­ion of salvation, and that those who reject it will be lost forever. The same damnatory clause is also wedged in [between the first part and the second part of the Creed]. This three­fold anathema … requires everyone who would be saved to believe in the only true and living God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, one in essence, three in persons, and in one Jesus Christ, very God and very Man in one person.

The damnatory clauses, especially when sung or chanted in public wor­ship, grate harshly on modern Protestant ears, and it may well be doubted whether they are consistent with true Christian charity and humility, and whether they do not transcend the legitimate authority of the Church. (Creeds of Christendom, chapter 10, paragraph 3)

Ever since Nicaea, the church has come up with its own defini­tion of what is heresy, and condemns those who do not accept its standard of what a Christian is supposed to believe. In other words, by the fourth cen­tury, the church had boldly displaced the Scriptures, arro­gating to itself the authority to be the final deter­minator of what Christians may or may not believe. That is still the case in the Catholic Church today. While the Protestant church in its various denomina­tions accept in principle Scripture as the final authority, its doctrinal mindset has long been en­snared in trinitarian­ism for the reason that its dog­matic founda­tion is almost entirely derived from that of the Catholic Church out of which the Protestant church emerged. (Luther himself was an August­inian monk in the Catholic Church.)

The Protestant church broke away from Catholicism essent­ially on two main points as put forward by Luther: first, the im­portant matter of justifi­cation by faith; second, the rejection of the supreme authority of the Pope and his supposed infallibility. But apart from these two points, the rest of Catholic dogma, including the creeds of Nicaea and Constant­inople and the other trinitarian councils that fol­lowed, was incorpor­ated into Protestant­ism. As a result there is no funda­mental theolo­gical differ­ence between Catholic­ism and Protest­antism, a fact that has made it easy for Protestants and even Protest­ant minis­ters to convert to Catholicism as so often happens today. It also happens in the reverse direction: Catholics who are not parti­cular­ly en­am­ored of the Pope would have little diffi­culty joining Protestant churches.

As for defining what heresy is, the church from the time of Nicaea has considered itself the sole authority on faith, and on who is and who is not a heretic. The Catholic Church de­clared Luther a heretic and by exten­sion the Protestants who followed him, though in recent years the Cat­holic Church has taken a more conciliatory tone to­wards Protest­ants.

After Nicaea, the now unified Roman state and what it regarded as its church took up a policy of persecution against “heretics”. In an ironic twist of history, the once persecuted Christian church had now become the perse­cutor of Christ­ians, marking out some of them as heretics and pagans. The sav­agery of Christian persecutors is probably best known from the horrors of the Inquisition with its institu­tional use of torture, execution, and massacres in the prose­cution of “heretics,” but the process had started centuries earlier.

When a church or a group of Christians gives itself the right to declare what is heretical and what is orthodox, or who is a heretic and who is not, then all sorts of fearful things can happen that will forever remain on record as a disgrace to the church. Jesus had already warned his followers of this when he said, “A time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God” (John 16:2, NIV).

As for Protestants, one would think that they, having been con­demned as heretics themselves, would not be so inclined to condemn others in the same way, but sadly this is not the case. The horrific persec­utions of the Anabap­tists beginning from the time of the Reformation will forever be a stain on the church.

Tens of thousands of Anabaptists were killed by Catholics and Protest­ants, the latter in parallel with the scorching de­nun­ciation of the Anabaptists by Luther, Zwingli and Cal­vin (Oxford Diction­ary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed., p.55). This is consistent with the estimate, given by several sources, of 50,000 Anabaptists killed by the year 1535. Some of the better-known Anabaptist victims were Jacob Hutter (burned at the stake in Innsbruck), Hans Hut (tortured shortly before he died in Augs­burg), and the theologian Balthasar Hub­maier (tortured and burned alive in Vienna; three days later, his wife was drowned in the Danube with a stone tied around her neck).[21]

Protestants who know of these atrocities (e.g., those who teach church history in Bible schools) would under­stand­ably not want to speak of them, so the average Christian doesn’t know anything about these shame­ful events. Calvin’s active role in the condemn­ation and the burn­ing at the stake of Michael Servetus is another well docu­mented event that few Christians, even Calvinists, know about.[22]

The arrogating to oneself the right to determine who is and who is not a heretic goes on today. But because the church no longer has the power of the state, it can no longer persecute its opponents or dis­senters through physical mea­sures, but there remains a weapon of choice: slander and defama­tion. This is done even through the Internet to carry out shame­less smear cam­paigns against the targeted churches or church leaders. These slanderers are often the same people who claim to accept the auth­ority of the Script­ures, yet are blind to the severe con­demnation of the sin of slander in these same Scriptures. This is the extent to which many in the church have fallen into yet an­other sin: hypocrisy, which Jesus cond­emned in Matthew 23. These are the same people who are deaf to Jesus’ warning, “Judge not” (Mt.7:1).

The point we need to emphasize here, if there is to be any hope for the future of the church, is that the church urgently needs to see that it has fallen into error and hypocrisy, and is in desperate need of having its eyes opened to these realities so as to be able to repent for the sake of its own salvation. The fact is that the church has lost its credibility, and is viewed by the world as little more than a social or religious institution of little, if any, relevance in the modern age.

The shift from holy living to doctrinal assent

A grave departure from New Testament practice, with ser­ious conse­quences for the spiritual life of the church, is that from Nicaea onward, becoming a Christ­ian is largely viewed as a matter of assent to, or accept­ance of, a creed. The Nicene Creed of 325 explicitly says that salvation is conditional upon accepting its doctrinal clauses. This is incongruous with the New Testament mission of going out into the world to make dis­ciples (Mt.28:19) rather than creedal com­pa­triots.

The “believism” that is standard in the church today involves lit­tle more than the accept­ance of a church creed, usually based on the Nicene Creed, but without requiring any radical change in one’s spiritual life. This is sadly the kind of “faith” that has been the norm in the church from the 4th century to the present day. It is not hard to foresee the neg­ative effect that believism will have on the moral life of the church. The conduct of many Christians is not up to the standard of the decent non-Christian. The sins of church lead­ers are reported all too often in news­paper headlines. Fundrais­ing is the main activity of many churches today. What credibility does the church have in the world? Until we are liberated from this creedal concept of faith, and heed the New Testament call to become new people in Christ, there will be no hope whatsoever for the church.



[1] Eusebius, Life of Constantine, A. Cameron and Stuart Hall (Oxford), p.41.

[2] “The first Council of Nicaea was summoned in 325 CE by Constant­ine within seven months of the victory that installed him as sole ruler of the empire.” (Cambridge History of Christianity: Origins to Constant­ine, vol.1, p.552).

[3] Hans Küng: “But it was the emperor who had the say at the council; the bishop of Rome was not even invited. The emperor con­vened the imperial synod; he guided it through a bishop whom he appointed and through imper­ial com­missars; he made the resolut­ions of the council state laws by endorsing them.” (The Catholic Church: A Short History, p.36)

[4] Constantine was “credited with the successful homoousios form­ula agreed at Nicaea” (The Cambridge History of Christianity: Origins to Constant­ine, vol.1, p.548). Hans Küng: “Constantine himself had the unbi­blical word ‘of the same sub­stance’ (Greek homoousios, Latin consub­stant­ialis) in­serted; later it was to cause a great controversy” (The Catholic Church: A Short History, p.37). “Con­stantine, urged by his Spanish adviser, even threw in a phrase of his own: the Son is homo­ousios with the Father … The moderate majority were uneasy” (Stephen Tomkins, Short History of Christian­ity, p.49). Jaroslav Pelikan: “As Constantine had pro­posed the homo­ou­sios in 325, so his son Constantius inter­vened on the opposite side with the ruling: ‘I do not want words used that are not in Script­ure.’” (The Christian Tradition, vol.1, pp. 209-210)

[5] J.N.D. Kelly (Early Christian Doctrines, p.237) refers to the “ancient tradit­ion that it was Ossius who suggested ὁμοούσιος [homoousios] to Constantine”.

[6] Constantine and the Christian Empire, pp.112-113.

[7] Ibid., p.197.

[8] The thoroughly pagan nature of the office of Pontifex Maximus can be seen in the detailed and scholarly Wikipedia article of the same name.

[9] “In the final irony, the emperor’s deathbed baptism would be per­formed by an Arian, the same Eusebius of Nicomedia whose in­terests Constantine had pro­tected in 325” (Cambridge Companion to the Age of Constantine, p.130). Con­stantine was baptized on Easter 337 by the Arian bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, and died on May 22, the day of Pent­ecost, while preparing a campaign against Persia (Eusebius: Life of Constantine, p.49).

[10] Eusebius: Life of Constantine (p.44) says “doubts have been ex­pressed about the genuineness of Constantine’s Christianity,” notably by Jakob Burckhardt in The Age of Constantine the Great, Alistair Kee in Constantine Versus Christ, and Eduard Schwartz in Charakterköpfe aus der Antiken Literatur: Vorträge.

[11] Hans Küng: “This creed became the law of the church and the empire—every­thing was now increasingly dominated by the slogan ‘One God, one emper­or, one empire, one church, one faith’” (The Catholic Church: A Short History, p.37).

[12] That the Nicene Creed is binding on all bishops in Christendom and by exten­sion on all Christians is seen in many historical observa­tions such as the one in the previous footnote, but also the following: “It was Con­stantine himself who sum­moned over 200 bishops to attend the Council of Nicaea in Bythinia in Asia Minor in May 325. Because of its size and because it was the first Church council to set out a creed to be assented to by all bishops, the Council of Nicaea was eventually to be ac­cepted as the first general or ecu­menical council of the Church, its authority in theory binding on all Christians.” Jesus Now and Then, Burridge and Gould, p.172.

[13] That is, the combination of Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles viewed as one composition written by the same person, Luke, to a certain Theophilus.

[14] Both statements by Küng are from The Catholic Church: A Short History, p.37.

[15] The Parting of the Ways: Between Christianity and Judaism and their Signi­fi­cance for the Character of Christianity, 2nd ed., J.D.G. Dunn, SCM Press, 2006.

[16] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, says that Constant­ine was willing to to­lerate the different Christian groups “on condition that they acqui­esced in his creed” (p.237), and that “while the em­peror was alive, his creed was sacro­sanct” (p.238). Emphasis added.

[17] J.N.D. Kelly: “Whatever the theology of the council was, Con­stant­ine’s own overriding motive was to secure the widest possible measure of agree­ment. For this reason he was not prepared to bar the door to anyone who was willing to append his signature to the creed. There is thus a sense in which it is unrealistic to speak of the theology of the council.” (Early Christian Doctrines, p.237)

[18] As put bluntly by a popular-level history: “Constantine proba­bly didn’t care whether Jesus was God. He did, however, care about a united Empire.” (Timothy Paul Jones, Christian History Made Easy, p.39).

[19] In episode 3 of the BBC docu­ment­ary series, History of Christianity, the nar­rator, a professor of church history at Oxford, says: “The greatest empire which the West had ever known seemed to be tottering into ruin. From the beginning of the 4th century, the Roman Empire was Christian. But then the Christian God seemed to have given up on it. In the West, barbarians overran it. In 410, they seized Rome itself.” The sentence in italics brings out the somber tone of its narrat­or, Diarmaid MacCulloch, known for his Christian­ity: The First Three Thousand Years, a work that won the 2010 Cundill Prize in History.

[20] There are six references to Babylon in Revelation. Thayer’s Greek-English lexi­con, on Babulōn, says, “allegori­cally, of Rome as the most corrupt seat of idolatry and the enemy of Christianity: Rev.14:8; 16:19; 17:5; 18:2,10,21.” The ISBE article “Babylon in the NT” says that “most scholars hold that Rome was the city that was meant”. To the believers in John’s day, a prophecy regarding literal Baby­lon would have little meaning be­cause Israel was under the Roman Empire and was not threat­ened by Babylon. John himself was a pris­oner of Rome, not Babylon, on the island of Patmos (Rev.1:9). If John had indeed in­tended “Babylon” to be a reference to Rome, then his teaching about Babylon would be sign­ificant.

[21] In Utrecht, sisters-in-law Maria and Ursula van Beckum were burned at the stake; they were tied to the stakes loosely so that on­lookers could see them flinch reflexively when they were set on fire. Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth-Cent­ury Reforming Pion­eers, Arnold Snyder and Linda A. Huebert Hecht (eds.), pp.352-356, Wilfred Laurier University Press, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, 1996.

[22] On of the trial and execution of Michael Servetus over doctrine, see Hunted Heretic: The Life and Death of Michael Servetus, 1511-1553, Roland H. Bain­ton, pro­fessor of ecclesiastical history at Yale; and Out of the Flames, by Lawrence and Nancy Gold­stone.

 

 

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