The early church Councils

Declaring that some thoughts are ‘ANATHEMA’

The Early Church Councils

Declaring that some thoughts are ‘ANATHEMA’

I won’t normally write blogs unless I come across something that someone else isn’t saying, or I have been doing some digging and have found something new for the conversation. This time, in researching about Pelagius, I have found a little more about the early church councils that I thought would be fun to share.

Firstly, from her book on Mary Magdalene, Cynthia Bourgeault writes about the way that the history of the church is written by the ‘winners’. Once orthodoxy was in place, all other thought could be held up as ‘anathema’ or ‘Gnostic’. However, she offers an alternative view…

‘When one moves this sacred cow (orthodoxy) gently off the tracks, the picture that emerges of the real origins of Christianity is far more fascinating and believable. Rather than an unadulterated “pure doctrine” handed on serenely from apostle to apostle, early Christianity was a riot of pluralism, as different in ethnicity and temperament as the Mediterranean lands themselves. There were Jewish Christians, Greek Christians, Roman Christians, a whole line of Syrian and Aramaic Christians that have largely dropped out of sight, initiates of Mystery schools, keepers of the Torah, millennialists and mystics, ascetics, misogynists and matriarchs. Each community struggled within the terms of its own understanding – its own cosmovision – to make sense of the Jesus event, and within each community that vision looked different. Far from bowing to some objective standard of orthodoxy, what gave those early Christian communities their seat-of-the-pants dynamism was that everything had to be worked out from scratch. What did Jesus actually teach? Who was an apostle and who was not? How did one tell? Needless to say there were many local opinions, and the texts that circulated among those early outposts of Christians comprised an ongoing conversation rather than an an unbroken monologue’. (The Meaning of Mary Magdalene by Cynthia Bourgeault, p35)

So, for the first two hundred years, maybe, was this crazy chaos, then the councils began to take back control. At first they were local gatherings of bishops and then, when the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, there was a need to define the religion along doctrinal lines and to unify thinking across his empire.

This excellent little ten-minute video shows what happened at the first Ecumenical (all churches) Council in Nicaea 325AD

Into this ferment of power struggle for the golden calf of orthodoxy (a hundred and seventy-one councils in a hundred years, yrs as opposed to just thirty-five in the years before 325AD), comes one of the winners, Bishop Augustine, born in Hippo North Africa in 345AD. He was to be the most important influence in shaping orthodox Christian doctrine to this day. From his influence at those councils, through to Calvinist thought in the Reformation, we then find his refutation of Pelagius appearing in the Thirty-nine Articles of religion (which every Anglican priest promises to uphold) from 1571.

Article 9: ‘Original Sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk) but it is the fall and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation.’

Augustine’s thinking is deeply influenced by Greek/ Latin thought and all through his books – Confessions, and The City of God – we see him grappling with issues of God’s omnipotence, original sin, free will and the problem of evil with this Latin philosophy as the dominant influence.

The links here will take you to further information about the councils: the first being an in-depth study of Pelagius and Augustine, and the second being a transcript from the Synod that vindicated Pelagius a year before his thinking was finally judged to be ‘anathema’ at the council in Carthage in 416 AD.

So, why should this interest us? Because it may be that we need to look closely at orthodox doctrine, and tiptoe through the heresies, in order to find a new interpretation of our Christian faith for the twenty-first century. We need to be wise and have some idea of how we got to this place, so we can see which paths best suit our present age.

Also, there is still considerable resistance in the Christian faith to any development of thought within the doctrines of the church. The Inquisition is still active in the Catholic Church and books like Ben Quash’s Heresies and How to Avoid Them are still being published. There is still a huge emphasis on right thinking (orthodoxy) over right action (orthopraxy) with personal beliefs about such things as heaven and hell being used to define who is in, and who is out, of the Christian community.

As the church moves, oh-so-slowly, towards coherent theologies for the future, so – maybe – the old debates will be refreshed and new insights added– from women, from scientists, from political theorists, philosophers and artists. . . . Maybe!

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