Tuesday 13 January 2015

The post-Apostolic Christological controversies in a picture



I regard these early Christological disputes, and their resolution, as having inflicted severe and permanent damage on Christianity; by having wrenched it away from the religion of Christ and the Apostles - by (in practice) re-making Christianity as primarily a philosophical/ theological religion, rather than what it was meant to be: a religion of divine personal relationships.

Luckily, this did not prevent there being many great Christians and even great Christian civilizations - but they were all tainted and warped by those early Christological disputes and the way they were dealt-with.

I am sure that was not the intended meaning of the above cartoon - but it works very well.


Adam G. said...

The questions they were trying to answer were real and important questions. Their failure was not accepting "we don't know" and even "we don't need to know" for an answer.

Andrew E. said...

In reading the Doctrine and Covenants of the Mormon Church it is clear there were some disputes among the early Saints about who could receive revelation but these disputes were able to be resolved quickly without any damage to the Church by further revelation from Joseph Smith. That something similar didn't happen in the post-Apostolic period to resolve serious disputes seems to be give credence to the LDS claim that some kind of an apostasy had taken place and the keys of the priesthood were taken away.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Adam - Exactly what I tried to say.

@Andrew - I believe this was the case. However it also needs to be emphasized that even without the keys and in a distorted state; real Christianity was possible, it happened, it was periodically revived, and the spirit was sometimes very strong.

Bruce B. said...

To my knowledge, Mormons believe that the apostacy took place when John died. In other words, long before the serious disputes turned ugly. So I don’t see how Mormons can use this argument to support their claim about the keys.

The Catholic explanation, I think, would be that the Church has always been populated by sinners (who are becoming saints).

Bruce Charlton said...

@BB - I think you are mistaken, at least in the sense that Mormons (and I) believe the Apostle John never died


I think the idea is that the lack of overt Apostles (and Prophets and fully-valid Priests) meant that these (and other) disputes *progressively* got out of hand, went off the rails, and so on - I don't think there is meant to be a specific instant at which this happened.

The word Apostasy for this may in some respect be be misleading (and is certainly inflammatory) - but strictly interpreted it is correct.

I suppose the Mormon interpretation is similar to the Reformed/ Protestant interpretation of the history of the church - but with the inflection point pushed back somewhat further.

Bruce B. said...

“I suppose the Mormon interpretation is similar to the Reformed/ Protestant interpretation of the history of the church - but with the inflection point pushed back somewhat further.”
Yes, I’m glad someone finally made that point. From a Catholic perspective, Protestants make the same mistake as Mormons (although I think they don’t usually state it explicitly, rather I think it follows from their view of the Church’s history). It’s useful for the Catholic apologist to point this out.
I don’t know what the official teaching of the LDS church is on this and if/how it has changed.
But every missionary/Elder I have talked to has said the Church fell into apostacy when the last apostle died. I added the part about John so maybe they meant the other apostles.

Bruce Charlton said...

@BB - Well - assuming it is true, then either Mormonism was necessary, or it was not.

If it was necessary then there must have been some reason, some significant fault/s or deficiency/s in existing Christianity - such that God brought forth a new prophet, a new church, a new dispensation.

Having said that, Mormons are far, far, far more loving and appreciative of mainstream Christians and the historical Christian church than mainstream Christian denominations are of each other (let alone of Mormons).

My belief is that the fuss made about the Mormon account of the apostate history of the church is simply yet another consequence of the negative prejudice with which most Christians approach Mormonism - they are simply looking for reasons to disagree, take offence, reject - and what they seek, they will naturally find.

Leo said...


I recommend for your consideration Givens' treatment of the "Church in the Wilderness" in Wrestling with the Angel, e.g. pp. 36-37.

tgj said...

They did not need to accept "we don't know," because they did know. Christ himself said that he was the Son of God and that he proceeded from the Father, and there are other grounds for knowing. The claim that we don't know is strange in light of how limited the Trinitarian dogmas are. We don't know how the procession of the Holy Spirit differs from the begetting of the Son. The Church accepts such limits on our knowledge, because those things have not been revealed to us. It does not accept limitations imposed from outside by those who trust their own reason above the revelation that has been preserved by the Church.

To those who say we don't need to know, the history of the Roman Catholic church ought to be at least a sign that perhaps even the Filioque does mean something, as they proceeded from that to altering more and more things, whereas the Orthodox have not.

The most important question is whether or not Jesus Christ is both fully man and fully God. All of the Christological disputes are about whether or not God has really revealed Himself to us uniquely through Jesus Christ. All denials of that revelation are denials of the divinity of Christ (and sometimes proceed further, such as the denial of various attributes or energies of God, or the denial that Christ was a historical person). In what sense is a person who denies the divinity (or historicity) of Christ a Christian? Only in some socially or personally convenient sense.

Bruce Charlton said...

@tg - I have considerable sympathy with your perspective, but the Monophysite controversy provides a counter example to Roman Catholicism. The Monphysites were labelled as heretics by mainstream Orthodoxy, yet nobody has satisfactorily said why - and the Copts have been exemplary Christians for over 1000 years under extreme difficulty - no sign of apostasy.

In general, Orthodoxy has accepted the primary philosophizing of Christianity but at a simpler level than the Roman church, and while trying to keep the philosophy fixed rather than open-endedly developing.

"The most important question is whether or not Jesus Christ is both fully man and fully God. " Is a philosophical inference and development of scripture - there is nothing explicitly like that in scripture. Furthermore, it is almost impossible to make sense of when God and Man are regarded as utterly different kinds of being. It is, in fact, a mystical mantra - which can hardly qualify as any kind of philosophical solution to the problem.

So, not only did the disputes over the exact description of the nature of Christ lead to hatred and schism, they were dishonestly/misleadingly resolved by a sociological - *not* philosophical - mechanism; and this solution then regarded as unchallengeable (despite meaningless) dogma. A form of words which must be recited and 'believed', when that belief has no comprehensible meaning but is merely a pretentious rhetorical trick.

While the impulse to understand is a good one, overall the whole era and aftermath was an appalling stain on the Christian church.

Andrew E. said...

Concerning Christianity prior to the Mormon Church, here is the LDS student manual on section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants:

D&C 121:26–32. Do Latter-day Saints Enjoy Gifts of the Holy Ghost That Have Never Been Enjoyed Before?

The gift of the Holy Ghost has been enjoyed by faithful Saints since the world began. But in the dispensation of the fulness of times all the keys, powers, and principles known in past dispensations individually are now enjoyed collectively. In addition, the revealed organization of the earthly kingdom is, as President Harold B. Lee said, “more perfected than in the past dispensations” (Stand Ye in Holy Places, p. 273; see also p. 322).

Bruce Charlton said...

@Andrew E - Thanks for that.

The point I wanted to make above is that the fact that Mormons interpret the history of Christianity in terms of a very early apostasy has NOT been associated with a tendency to despise or hate other and earlier Christians - quite the contrary. There has been a positive encouragement to draw as much spiritual benefit as possible from other earlier and other Christian traditions and denominations (and non-Christian, for that matter) - as with the thirteenth Article of Faith:

"We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men; indeed, we may say that we follow the admonition of Paul-We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things."

Bruce B. said...

“My belief is that the fuss made about the Mormon account of the apostate history of the church is simply yet another consequence of the negative prejudice with which most Christians approach Mormonism”
I don’t know if Protestants make a fuss about the Mormon account of apostacy. They’re more concerned with other Mormon doctrines. Catholics take issue with it because of Christ’s promise about the Church.
I think mainstream Christianity inevitably sees Mormonism as cult-like (albeit a relatively successful cult led by a genius). The idea of a charismatic prophet with unique and ongoing revelation, etc and the fact that (as you’ve noted) the stark choice between believing or disbelieving this revelation means that mainstream Christians tend to see Joseph Smith as a fraud.
This is meant to be explanatory and I hope you and your LDS readers don’t take offense. I think I told you that my wife was baptized LDS (before she was baptized Catholic) and I actually like the LDS.

Bruce Charlton said...

@BB - Yes, if Mormonism is true, there must have been a Great Apostasy; and if Mormonism isn't true then Joseph Smith must have been a fraud - there isn't much middle ground!

Same with Jesus Christ if he was not the Son of God - he must have been a madman or a fraud (I don't see how he could be merely a prophet, nor a wise teacher - but I suppose you could regard Jesus as a prophet but not divine (as a billion or so people do) and regard the Apostles/ Bible makers as having being the frauds).

We should try not to be offended by these stark choices! It's what you do next that matters - ie do you harass, rob, torture and kill those self-identified Christians whom you regard as wrong. *That* was the problem with the Christology disputes.

I tend to believe that the Arians were absolutely OK as well as the Monophysites - there is so little direct evidence, and I do not trust those who vilified them. At that time so many Christians seemed to be looking for excuses to misunderstand, hate, attack, excommunicate and worse - they approached all possible enemies with such a negative mind-set that they were bound to be found guilty.

'Cult' is a meaningless, worthless and pejorative 'Boo word' that excuses further thought - anyone who uses it in argument gets a black mark from me!

Some Protestants talk of the veneration of Mary and Saints as a 'cult'; Catholics regard many small strict and devout Protestant churches as cults - these seems to be deliberately using an intrinsically offensive and dismissive word.

'Fundamentalist' is another such word. To be in a church that is devoutly religious is usually to be accused of being in a fundamentalist cult by anyone not in that church!

When a small church has lasted more than a generation, its fruits are usually apparent for good or ill; and then we have far better grounds for judgment than pseudo-rational discourse about cults.

Bruce B. said...

Oh, I agree so much with you about “fundamentalist.” When I hear the word, I think “real Christian.” Real Christians (Catholic, Protestant, whatever) will appear to be “fundamentalists” to the 21st century world. And I agree with you about the use of “boo words.”
I did not mean “cult” as a pejorative. I was thinking of a particular usage where it means a religion founded by and centered on a particular person. Mainstream Christianity would be exempt from this definition because it was founded by a man who is God. If you choose not to believe Mormonism, then it appears that a man, Joseph Smith, founded the LDS church.

Bruce Charlton said...

@BB - No Christ did not organize a church; it was organized after his Ascension by men: the Apostles - especially Peter and Paul. So that definition would make Christianity a cult. But this just goes to show what a useless concept it is.

tgj said...

That the man Jesus Christ is the Son of God and therefore fully God is not an inference from scripture. It is the reason why the New Testament scriptures were written in the first place. The scripture, and all the writing and arguments and decisions that were made afterwards, were not based on on philosophical or merely sociological grounds, or on some vague and unaffiliated mysticism. They come from a whole tradition from the time of Christ, foreshadowed long before: a continuous tradition of revelation from the Holy Spirit going back to the beginning of time. Christ, and who Christ really is, cannot be separated from the whole tradition of God's interaction with man, which is the whole tradition of how we know God. One is either attracted to the truth of this whole tradition, which includes its way of knowing, or not. Either one sees the light that it sheds on reality, and sees that it is the source of all light, or one does not.

The tradition and the way of knowing in the West is the Roman Catholic tradition and its offspring (which over time have increasingly fornicated, so to speak, with anything and everything). This is the tradition that attempts to understand these things from the position of philosophy, textual analysis, rationalism generally, etc. It is mostly about the mind and takes an essentially incredulous stance towards the possibility of really knowing God at all (because it's impossible to understand on its own limited terms), but the real problem is that it has no living connection with the tradition of the knowledge of God: the one and only tradition of true, non-speculative theology.

Bruce Charlton said...

@tg - It is what the words mean - in themselves, and in relation to God teh Father and to Man, that is the issue, not the words themselves.