We Always Had A United Church? Sorry, Think Again
by Dr. Henderson Ward
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The world as we know it is a place that opposes unity for it is a world that is filled with cantankerous individuals. Many such are more concerned with their own theories and disposition than with united effort and endeavour that spread achievement away from the individual and across a wider group. This is very evident in the field of politics where every positive proposition is met with a flurry of opposition and naysayers and doom-mongers. The same thing is verily true in the scientific world and in truth anywhere that deals with concepts, morality and human choice. Alas this spirit of disunity and dissension is also prevalent in The Church, an organization that you think should be exemplary in the field of unity and brotherly togetherness.
The Church is unlike any other organization on earth because its origin is Divine, its upkeep and preservation are God-centric and its members are incredibly special and Divinely chosen. The Bible describes church members in lofty tones like this, "But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light." (1 Peter 2:9) You would think then that with such grand characterization The Church would be absolutely free of the accursed wrangling, dissensions and disunity that so afflict other earthly societies.
You would be correct in thinking anything based on Jesus Christ, organized on heavenly principles and taught by the illustrious Apostles would be the epitome of unity, fraternity, cooperation and brotherliness. In truth The Church had this for a while but for lengthy periods of its history the opposite was the reality.
Many believers, whenever the question of disunity is mentioned, cannot think beyond two outstanding, seminal events. The first seminal event they think of is when some Jews who were converted (from Judaism) to Christianity made it clear that Christians in order to be saved had to be circumcised and keep The Law. Saint Paul along with the leaders of the early church called a Jerusalem Council around the year 50 AD and put that issue to rest by resolutely rejecting the notions of circumcision and the ritual keeping of The Law. The second seminal event they think of is of course The Reformation which started when Luther disagreed and resolutely opposed what was happening in The Church and publicised his objections on October 31, 1517, by posting the ninety-five theses, which he had composed in Latin, on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg. The Reformation as we know led to the formation of Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic/Orthodox churches.
However those two seminal events spanned some turbulent years containing a lot of disruption and disharmony in The Church and many believers are unaware of them. When major disruptions and conflict arose in The Church, they were either of a theological nature (heretic) or to do with leadership/group loyalty (schism) and at times both. The Church had to deal with seven such situations and all main stream churches, without equivocation, recognize these seven.
These seven situations, usually referred to as 7 Ecumenical Councils, are perhaps fitting because as believers know the number 7 has a powerful meaning biblically. We should not over-do the use of the number 7 but remember that: seven is the number of spiritual perfection; in the creative works of God seven completes the colours of the spectrum and the rainbow; seven musical notes complete the scale; the first statement as to the original Creation in Genesis 1:1 consists of 7 words; Abraham received from God the seven-fold blessing Genesis 12:2-3; there were seven appearances of angels during the life of Jesus on earth, etc.
Throughout church history intense debate and sometimes internecine warfare have taken place and this is to be expected because from earliest times The Church has been tasked to "Contend earnestly for the Faith" (Jude 1:3). However to be more specific a lot of misunderstanding and contention have arisen surrounding the doctrine theologically known as Christology and all of the 7 Ecumenical Councils had something to do directly or indirectly with this subject. This is a mighty important point to bear in mind; because without a proper understanding of the person and ministry of Jesus Christ, The Church will always lack conviction, purpose and direction.
The First Ecumenical Council, Nicea 325AD
A lot has been said and written about the first Christian Roman Emperor Constantine and there is much truth about his faltering grasp of the true tenets of the faith and his real intentions for Christianity. What we know unquestionably is that Constantine wanted to rule over a united, or more precisely a peaceful Empire and accordingly he used his good offices to try to resolve conflict within The Church. The Church was in bitter dispute over the nature of Jesus Christ and in particular over the teaching of Alexandrian priest Arius along with other theological issues.
Arius taught that yes God the Son pre-existed as a divine being before the creation of the Universe but he was not "co-eternal" with God the Father. This meant that God the Son was Almighty God the Father's first creation. The opposite position, championed by Deacon Athanasius, held that the Father and Son existed together with the Holy Spirit from the beginning. Further disagreements involved the question of whether the Son and the Father were of the "same substance" and whether the Son was in any way subservient to the Father.
The Church decisively and without equivocation rejected Arianism and affirmed it with the issue of the Nicene Creed. This however did not settle the matter completely because the German Christians, who were converted Barbarians, were a powerful force in the Roman Empire and they were in the main disciples of Arius. This controversy dragged on for many years and even Constantine equivocated between the two positions finally agreeing with the views of Arius and banishing Athanasius. All main-stream churches now accept the Nicene Creed and over the centuries this creed has been affirmed again and again in spite of the many attempts to revisit the matter. The church also dealt firmly with the false doctrines of Sabellianism and Monarchianism and issued a set of Church Canons dealing with Church Order.
This first Ecumenical Council was of supreme importance because "the revelation of Christ through the apostles is complete, inviolate, sufficient, eternal, immutable, and not subject to any change whatever" (Burton Coffman) and any attempt to meddle with this Christology will be resisted with all the might of The Church.
The Second Ecumenical Council, Constantinople, 381 AD
This Council took place in Constantinople (present day Turkey) and is sometimes referred to as the fist Council of Constantinople because three Councils altogether took place there. As mentioned earlier the first Ecumenical Council did not please everybody and dissension continued unabated and as a result this second council was called. It was presided over by Theodosius 1 from May to July and The Council confirmed the Nicene Creed. Dissension later arose because the Christians in the Western Roman Empire added what is called the "filioque clause" to which the other Christians in the Eastern Roman Empire objected. The "filioque clause" (and the son) indicating that the Holy Spirit proceedeth from the Father and the Son has never been accepted by the Eastern Orthodox Church but all Churches accept the Nicene Creed, as it is known to this day.
The third Ecumenical Council, Council of Ephesus, 431AD
This third Ecumenical Council was called because Nestorious, the Patriarch of Constantinople, was teaching that Christ had two separable natures, human and divine rather than a unified nature. This dissension arose because Nestorious was trying to make sense of the incarnation and subsequent death of Jesus Christ. This Council condemned Nestorius and his teaching and thereby created a schism in The Church. It also declared Mary to be "theotokos" (God-bearer) in order to strengthen the claim that Christ was fully divine against those who called her merely "Christotokos" (Christ-bearer).
The Fourth Ecumenical Council, Council of Chalcedon, 451AD
In a sense this was a follow on from the situation regarding Nestorious and resulted in the issuing of the Chalcedonian Formula, affirming that Christ is two natures in one person and specifically included this wording... one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence (hypostasis), not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ...
The Fifth Ecumenical Council, Council of Constantinople 2, 553AD
This second Council of Constantinople dealt with fresh arising of Arianism and Nestorianism and condemn the writings of three dead writers. It also reiterated and confirmed the decisions of previous councils in particular the Church's teaching on the dual nature of Christ, and reaffirmed that He is both Truly God and Truly Man. It also issued the Theopaschite Formula. This formula " One of the Trinity suffered" properly understood was the orthodox response to Nestorianism. This Council also condemned the Three Chapters, a compendium of the writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrus, and Ibas of Edessa who were advocates of Antiochene theology, emphasizing Christ's humanity at the expense of his deity. Their opponents held Alexandrian theology emphasizing Christ's deity.
The Sixth Ecumenical Council, Council of Constantinople 3, 680AD
The doctrine of Monothelitism (Christ has a single will) gained wide-spread currency in the 7th Century particularly the latter half and even the Pope supported the doctrine at one time. This doctrine stated that Jesus Christ had two natures (divine and human) but one will and this was rejected by this council affirming that Christ had a human will and a divine will that functioned in perfect harmony.
The Seventh Ecumenical Council, Council of Nicea 2, 787AD
This seventh and last Ecumenical Council declared that icons are acceptable aids to worship, rejecting the iconoclasts (icon-smashers) and supporting the iconodules (venerators of icons). upheld the iconodules' postion in AD 787. They proclaimed: Icons... are to be kept in churches and honored with the same relative veneration as is shown to other material symbols, such as the 'precious and life-giving cross and the Book of the Gospels. The 'doctrine of icons' is tied to the Orthodox teaching that all of God's creation is to be redeemed and glorified, both spiritual and material. This decision see icons not as idols but art and therefore necessary and essential because they protect the full and proper doctrine of the Incarnation.
It should be understood that this treatment is the merest summary of intense debate and shifting of positions and compromises that went on at these Ecumenical Councils; some of them lasting several weeks. Although we hate to admit it we should nevertheless acknowledge that politics played a significant role in nearly all these councils. The Roman Empire was always an amalgam of competing interest where Emperors and Generals and Senators and Popes and Bishops all had their own fiefdom to protect, reputation to uphold, loyalty to reward and garnish and always on the lookout to do that which bolstered their position.
It is truly amazing that with all these disparate and competing elements The Church has been able to come together and with one voice declare the position on all facets of doctrine that represents all of Christianity. We know that since these recognised 7 Ecumenical Councils schisms and heresies have continued and following The Reformation we have a splintered church. Today each church, each denomination has become auto-cephalous and decides all matters of theology and liturgy for themselves but in truth all mainstream churches are one in Christ. It is necessary to bear this in mind and remember the scripture that affirms it, " For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit." (I Corinthians 12:12-13)
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