I have stumbled on a statement that fascinates me. I only raise it here because I know some people who read this blog will help point me to some further answers. But before coming to the statement, I would like to clarify some things and set some general ground rules.
The topic is very “Christian.” Not really “how Christianity is necessary for liberty,” at least not directly. Perhaps indirectly, as this issue of Christian arrogance points to one of the causes of a ruptured Church that cannot, therefor, so easily stand against corrupt power.
What do I mean by Christian arrogance? Well, before coming to this, I will reiterate something I have often said: no-interdenominational or inter-traditional food fights here. No matter which tradition any of us calls home, we all know that there are either corrupt leaders or corrupt doctrines or both in our own home. No need to get nasty about it regarding someone else. And no point in trying to resolve it here either.
Broadly speaking, what I mean by Christian arrogance…this idea that a new generation can somehow find truths unknown to those who have been developing the Christian theology for 2000 years. I heard Paul VanderKlay say something very helpful recently – and keep in mind, he is a pastor in a Dutch Christian Reformed Church, about as Protestant as it gets.
He said something like: Sola Scruptura should be used to test tradition, not to eliminate tradition. This is a valuable way in which to consider the specific issue at hand: the issue of the nature of Jesus Christ. Which makes me wonder – and something I read, I think in Strickland’s books: if we really want to achieve ecumenical dialogue and, potentially, harmony, go back to the earliest councils and work forward. And, I would add, apply the VanderKlay filter.
And this comes to the statement that fascinates me, one that points to this intersection of Scripture and tradition. One that demonstrates that the formula of “let’s see what the Bible says” (sola Scriptura) cannot answer every question – even tremendously important ones…like, you know, the nature and person of Christ.
So…this question was addressed at the Council of Nicaea:
The First Council of Nicaea was a council of Christian bishops convened in the Bithynian city of Nicaea (now İznik, Turkey) by the Roman Emperor Constantine I in AD 325.
This ecumenical council was the first effort to attain consensus in the church through an assembly representing all Christendom.
I find that last statement tremendously important when it comes to dealing with matters of theological importance that are not so clearly understood from Scripture. A body of bishops; not individuals deciding on their own, as this is arrogance. About 1800 bishops were invited; something around 300 bishops attended (different numbers from different sources).
Here is the curious statement, taken from Documents from the First Council of Nicea - A.D. 325:
The Fathers of the Council at Nice were at one time ready to accede to the request of some of the bishops and use only scriptural expressions in their definitions. But, after several attempts, they found that all these were capable of being explained away.
What is so important about Homousios that it was desired to use only Scriptural expressions in formulating the definitions?
HOMOOUSIOS: A term first defined by the first general council of the Church to identify Christ's relationship to the Father. It was chosen by the council to clarify the Church's infallible teaching that the second Person of the Trinity, who became man, is of one and the same substance, or essence, or nature as God the Father. The Arians, who were condemned at Nicaea, held that Christ was "divine" only in the sense that he was from God, and therefore like God, but not that he was literally "God from God, one in being with the Father." (Etym. Greek homoousios, of one essence, consubstantial.)
It turns out that Homousios is rather important – like…everything. Was the second person of the Trinity God, or was there no Trinity – like Jesus was just a really good guy, overly blessed by God? Closer to a Mother Theresa type, perhaps? This matters a lot, and these learned bishops couldn’t find a clear defense solely based on Scripture.
How did the Council intend this word, Homousios, to be understood? St. Athanasius explained:
"That the Son is not only like to the Father, but that, as his image, he is the same as the Father; that he is of the Father; and that the resemblance of the Son to the Father, and his immutability, are different from ours: for in us they are something acquired, and arise from our fulfilling the divine commands. Moreover, they wished to indicate by this that his generation is different from that of human nature; that the Son is not only like to the Father, but inseparable from the substance of the Father, that he and the Father are one and the same, as the Son himself said: 'The Logos is always in the Father, and, the Father always in the Logos,' as the sun and its splendour are inseparable."
Now, go back to the earlier statement from the Council: using only Scripture, the Council could not defend the position, because “…all these [attempts] were capable of being explained away.”
This does not necessarily mean that a different position could be defended solely by Scripture. I know Unitarians and Jehovah’s Witnesses conclude such a thing, but is their belief any more or less grounded in Scripture that can be “explained away”? Of course, I would say less because of that “Christian arrogance” thing.
There is a tradition that extends back to the apostles; St. Ignatius of Antioch was a disciple of the Apostle John, as was St. Polycarp of Smyrna. Men such as these understood the times, the language, the culture far better than those who came 500, 1000, or 2000 years later. There is a tradition that built on these men. To ignore this tradition (not to say they were infallible, but to not contend with it), is arrogance.
To be clear: by pointing out that the statements from Nicaea could not be defended solely by Scripture does not mean that I am in any way questioning the position of the vast majority of the Church – I do not. I also don’t think salvation can work unless it is so, that it was God, in some fashion, who was sacrificed and then resurrected.
Why do I use the phrase “in some fashion”? Mostly, it is because I don’t want to get into a debate about how, “precisely,” the point is to be understood. Which comes to my next…curiosity:
The Council of Chalcedon was the fourth ecumenical council of the Christian church, convoked by Emperor Marcian. The council operated in Chalcedon, Bithynia (modern day Kadıköy, Turkey) from 8 October to 1 November 451 and was attended by 520 bishops or their representatives. The gathering itself continues to represent the largest and best-documented of early councils.
The churches now known as Oriental Orthodox didn’t like the wording of the statement regarding Christ’s nature. I want to look at the two:
Following, then, the holy Fathers, we all unanimously teach that our Lord Jesus Christ is to us One and the same Son, the Self-same Perfect in Godhead, the Self-same Perfect in Manhood; truly God and truly Man; the Self-same of a rational soul and body; co-essential with the Father according to the Godhead, the Self-same co-essential with us according to the Manhood; like us in all things, sin apart; before the ages begotten of the Father as to the Godhead, but in the last days, the Self-same, for us and for our salvation (born) of Mary the Virgin Theotokos as to the Manhood; One and the Same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten; acknowledged in Two Natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the difference of the Natures being in no way removed because of the Union, but rather the properties of each Nature being preserved, and (both) concurring into One Person and One Hypostasis; not as though He was parted or divided into Two Persons, but One and the Self-same Son and Only-begotten God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ; even as from the beginning the prophets have taught concerning Him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ Himself hath taught us, and as the Symbol of the Fathers hath handed down to us.
From the Coptic Orthodox Church, an Oriental Orthodox Church:
… we are Miaphysite and not Monophysite.
Both “Mia” and “Mono” mean “one.” But they don’t mean “one” in the same way, apparently.
Miaphysitism (one nature) means the Lord Jesus Christ is perfect human and perfect divine and these two natures are united together without mingling, nor confusion, nor alteration in one nature; the nature of God incarnate.
Both statements say Christ is of two natures; both statements say perfect divine and perfect human; both say without confusion; both say unchanging.
Chalcedonian churches say two natures, unconfusedly. The Oriental Orthodox Church says two natures without mingling. “Unconfusedly” or “without mingling” – can you tell the difference? But this issue caused the first schism. I remained completely baffled.
After many hours of searching, the most easily understandable short and simple answer I have found to explain this issue comes from a Catholic layman, Dr. Taylor Marshall:
The big debate between Non-Chalcedonian Miaphysites on one hand, and Chalcedonian Catholics and Eastern Orthodox on the other, centers on the use of terms in Greek:
The Non-Chalcedonians insist on Saint Cyril’s phrase “mia physis” (one nature) and the formulation that the incarnate Christ is “ek duo physeon” (out of two natures).
The Chalcedonians (Rome and Constantinople) allow for Saint Cyril’s phrase “mia physis” (we must accept it, because it comes from a sainted champion of orthodoxy!) but prefer the formulation that the incarnate Christ is “en duo physesin” (in two natures).
It is important to note that Non-Chalcedonians reject the heretic Eutyches and also rightly believe that Christ is consubstantial with the Father and consubstantial with humanity. It seems that the heretic Eutyches condemned by the Council of Chalcedon did not profess that Christ was consubstantial with the rest of humanity. This is bad, bad theology because if Christ does not share our nature, He cannot save us or lift us up.
Can you understand my confusion? Of course, in the comments to Dr. Marshall’s piece, there were widely differing views, but one portion of one comment is worth noting (and really shouldn’t be a surprise):
First of all, we must know that the use of certain words such as, nature, hypostasis, prosopon, ousia had different meanings for the parties involved in these controversies, this made things much more difficult than they had to be.
Translation and time – these can wreak havoc on understanding and meaning.
Can someone point me to another easy-to comprehend article or essay on the matter – on the precise nature of the difference in the two beliefs? Something that 98% of believers can comprehend, and not something that requires the knowledge of the most learned bishops? Look, I know I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but, really, this shouldn’t be so complicated and confusing.
It was fascinating for me to read the statement that the nature of Christ as understood in the Orthodox (universal) Church of the fourth century could not be defended or explained solely by using Scripture.
I once had a Protestant pastor say something to me like, “if it isn’t clear in the Bible, maybe that’s because God didn’t want to make it clear.” Well, maybe so. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t important. It is important that Jesus Christ is God and the Son of God, even if it cannot be defended solely by Scripture. But precisely how to explain the two natures in one – is this so important?
Which comes back to my Christian arrogance point, and the statement referenced earlier by VanderKlay: Sola Scriptura can (should) be used to test tradition. To create, individually, this understanding is, and has proven to be, a costly road for the Church to walk.
And, as should be obvious, it hasn’t only been Protestants that have walked it.