Among the many challenges to historic Christian faith, a revisionist interpretation of the relationship between orthodoxy and heresy in the early church is particularly influential in our day. A “historical reconstruction” of orthodox Christianity appears repeatedly in popular format through television documentaries, videos on the history of the Bible, and sensational articles in tabloid magazines at the grocery store.
This attempt at reconstruction goes back to at least the scholarly work of Walter Bauer in the nineteenth century. It is carried forward today by a small but influential group of scholars represented by Bart Ehrman (hereafter referred to as the Bauer-Ehrman thesis). These scholars assert that so-called “orthodox Christianity” is a later fabrication of the early church that must be abandoned because it never really existed in the first place. “Orthodoxy” was simply the victory of powerful emperors and bishops over so-called “heretical” groups such as Gnostics and Montanists. The stakes are high in this battle. A “new orthodoxy” — the gospel of diversity — challenges the church’s claim that Jesus and the apostles taught a unified message.
A refutation of the Bauer-Ehrman thesis has been offered by New Testament scholars Andreas J. Kostenberger and Michael J. Kruger in their book The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How Contemporary Culture’s Fascination with Diversity Has Reshaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity (Crossway, 2010). My article here seeks to complement their work by the age of the great Ecumenical Councils (AD 325–787), and how the two spheres of church and emperor worked together in establishing Christian “orthodoxy.” Admittedly, this short article permits only a sketch of the issues involved in the definition of orthodoxy during these formative centuries, but hopefully it will provide readers with a reliable compass to guide them through this complex period of Christian history.
CHARACTERISTICS OF THE SEVEN
ECUMENICAL COUNCILS (AD 325–787)
The Ecumenical Councils are the common heritage of all classical Christians, whether they are Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or historic Protestant. The ancient term ecumenical was not used in the modern sense of interfaith dialogue or the World Council of Churches. Rather, it comes from a Greek word oikoumene, meaning “inhabited world.” The Ecumenical Councils were gatherings of all the bishops from the inhabited world of the Roman Empire who were convened at the invitation and expense of the emperor so that church leaders might decide matters of faith for the unity of both church and empire.
The conclusions reached by the seven Ecumenical Councils were as follows:
Starting with the fourth century, Ecumenical Councils differed from previous local councils in two respects: they were convoked by emperors, and their decisions became imperial law. The legal use of doctrine was the immediate goal of the emperors to ensure the unity of the empire. None of the Ecumenical Councils were attended by each and every bishop in the empire, and their doctrinal conclusions were almost never immediately accepted. However, through a Spirit-led discernment process, which is beyond our space to explain,1the councils all were received eventually by the mainstream church. Deliberations among the bishops in council did not seek a majority vote but the adoption by all of Christian truth. Heretical majorities such as the Arians, Monophysites, and iconoclasts at times succeeded in imposing their views on councils, but were later deemed to be false. The mere fact of their being a majority, therefore, cannot be regarded as a criterion of truth. In fact, truth in the church sometimes was held by a distinct minority of heroes such as St. Athanasius, who defended the full divinity of Christ against the opposing Arians, or St. Maximus the Confessor, who defended the divine and human wills of Christ against a powerful heretical emperor.
BYZANTIUM: A CHRISTIAN SOCIETY
Politically, all the Ecumenical Councils took place in the Byzantine Empire. The terms Byzantine or Byzantium come from nineteenth-century German historians to describe the Eastern half of the Roman Empire that continued to exist after the Western half of the empire fell to the Barbarians in AD 476. The Byzantine Empire lasted from c. 330–1453 as the continuation of the old Roman Empire. Church and state formed a single organism, each having its own sphere of influence: the clergy for the church, and the imperial power for the state. Beginning with Emperor Constantine, this new relationship between church and state made it inevitable for Byzantine emperors to play an active role in church affairs. Christian emperors and citizens alike accepted the emperor’s role as providentially appointed by God.
Several contemporary arguments are used by followers of the Bauer-Ehrman thesis to support the claim that emperors defined orthodox doctrine. For example, during the Council of Nicea (AD 325), Eusebius of Caesarea, a court bishop, described Emperor Constantine as “a bishop among the bishops.” Should this be taken literally as proof that the emperor possessed the sacramental qualities of a bishop, as proponents of the Bauer-Ehrman thesis contend? No; it was simply an honorific, flattering way of speaking about the emperor’s benevolent leadership. There is no evidence that Constantine, or any of his successors, ever attempted to celebrate communion at the church’s liturgy or serve as a sacramentally ordained clergyman.
Another example of how modern scholars sometimes misinterpret the work of emperors can be seen in how Eusebius described Constantine as an “overseer of those outside” (“episkopos ton ektos”). Is this phrase proof of caesaropapism? Caesaropapism is a term that describes the power of Roman emperors who allegedly controlled church doctrine, thereby creating “orthodoxy.” However, as we will see below, the belief in caesaropapism is a misinterpretation of historical data. Most early church historians today understand the phrase “overseer of those outside” as a reference to those outside the church. It describes the emperor’s missionary duties to assist the church in evangelizing non-Christians within the empire. It is not a description of his control over church doctrine.
Evidence for this interpretation is supported by the burial rites and a specific title given to Emperor Constantine. When Constantine died, he was buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople alongside purported relics of apostles, and given the title “equal to the apostles” — all indicating his apostolic function as “overseer of those outside” the church.
When turning to the later emperor Justinian, we learn that he had much too good a grasp of theological principles to take seriously the formal claims of caesaropapism. His attitude is indicated in his famous edict, Novella 6, issued in AD 535 and repeated in many other Byzantine texts. The edict describes an ideal theory of harmonious government by two interdependent authorities, that of emperor and the clergy: “The greatest blessings of mankind are the gifts of God which Have been granted us by the mercy on high: the priesthood and the imperial authority. The priesthood ministers to things divine; the imperial authority is set over, and shows diligence in, things human.”2 The goal to be achieved was an agreement, or “symphony,” between these two institutions, not the subjection of one to the other.
THE ROLE OF THE EMPEROR
The Ecumenical Councils were both ecclesiastical and political institutions. They were ecclesiastical because they represented the mind of the church. They were political because their gathering and external management was made possible only through the emperors who would enforce (not decide) the theological conclusions of bishops. Nevertheless, the role of the emperor in the Ecumenical Councils was complex and messy at times. Several examples will illustrate how emperors intervened in church affairs, but also how the bishops had a mind and will of their own.
Take, as our first example, the debates at the Council of Nicea (325) concerning the heretical teachings of Arius, who denied the Son’s full divinity. The bishops could not decide which words to use in describing the shared divinitybetween the Father and the Son, so Emperor Constantine proposed the now-famous Greek word homoousios meaning “consubstantial, of the same nature.” The term may well have been suggested to him by his theological advisor, bishop Hosios of Cordova in Spain, but nearly 300 bishops who assembled at Nicea accepted the emperor’s proposal. The term was used to exclude Arius’s theology, but it did not become a significant term of debate until St. Athanasius pushed for it around AD 345 in his letters Against Arius (book 3) and History of the Councils. The term became controversial due to its associations with modalism, a heresy that collapsed the distinctions between the three Persons of the Trinity into one divine being who manifested Himself in three different modes of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Eventually the term was accepted by the wider church at the Council of Constantinople in 381 as a proper description of the Son’s equal divinity with the Father. The historical push and pulls associated with the acceptance of homoousios demonstrate that the final acceptance of the term came not from emperors but from the church exercising its spiritual responsibility to repudiate doctrinal distortion.
A further instance of the church’s ultimate rejection of imperial interference into church doctrine occurred in the eighth and ninth centuries when emperors Leo III (717–741) and Constantine V (741–775) opposed the use of icons. Of all the Byzantine emperors, they were the only ones who formally claimed both spiritual and temporal powers. Influenced by Islamic caliphs who saw no distinction between temporal and spiritual powers, Constantine V wished to be both “priest and king.” In 754, he convened the Council of Hieria and stacked the deck with over 300 bishops who supported his iconoclastic views. The temporary triumph in opposing icons, however, as eventually rejected by the later seventh Ecumenical Council in 787, followed by a resurgence against icons but then permanently affirmed in 843 in a document known as the Synodikon (an anathema of all the great heresies of the previous centuries). An abbreviated version of the Synodikon is still read in all Eastern Orthodox Churches on the first Sunday of Lent in a service known as “The Feast of Orthodoxy.”
THE TRIUMPH OF ORTHODOXY
This brief sketch of the relations between church and state in the age of the Ecumenical Councils illustrates complexities that were involved in the formulation of orthodox theology. It demonstrates that the church and its tradition never ultimately bowed to the imperial will, even though there were false councils and internal strife. Even the true councils were never accepted automatically and rarely won the acceptance of the entire church at once.
Moreover, orthodoxy was never viewed as one of many possible “orthodoxies” to choose from; nor was it the result of caesaropapism by Roman emperors despite occasional attempts to the contrary; nor was it the victory of powerful bishops over oppressed theological minorities. Rather, the triumph of orthodoxy was the triumph of the Spirit of Truth over error. It was the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” (Nicene Creed).
Bradley Nassif, PhD, is professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at North Park University (Chicago) and a specialist on the theological history and spirituality of Eastern Orthodoxy in the ancient and modern worlds. The New Republic has described him as “the leading academic expert on Eastern Orthodox and Evangelical dialogue.”
The Talmud is a collection of many ancient rabbinic writings extending back even before the time of Jesus. This compilation was completed around AD 550 and includes polemics against Jesus, attempting to present Him in a negative light.
The Talmud is known also as the “Oral Law” among Orthodox Jews. They claim that it was given to Moses on Mt. Sinai along with the written law — the Torah — and that it was passed on orally from Moses to Joshua to the Prophets and finally to the Rabbis who wrote it out.
Although there is absolutely no hard evidence that the Oral Law came from Moses, it nevertheless contains history and represents the primary rabbinic commentary on the Hebrew Scriptures.
Orthodox Jews regard the Talmud as authoritative and look to it for guidance more than to the Hebrew Bible. In many ways, the Talmud provides fodder for the Christian apologist. For one thing, Talmudic thought is often at odds with the prevailing rabbinic opinions of today. As one example, today’s rabbis dismiss Jesus because He failed to set up an everlasting kingdom, as Scripture had prophesied. However, the Talmud comments that there are two separate descriptions of the Messiah. One describes Him coming humbly and even dying, while the other describes Messiah coming triumphantly.
Numerous Talmudic passages also acknowledge that Jesus had been a worker of miracles. While the Talmud describes these miracles as “magic” or “sorcery,” these admissions still have apologetic value.The F-E-A-T that Demonstrates the FACT of Resurrection By Hank Hanegraaff
When they had crucified him, above his head they placed the written charge against him: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders mocked him — and the robbers who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him. About the ninth hour, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” — which means, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Then Jesus, knowing that the Passover plot was nearing completion, cried out, “I am thirsty.” As if on cue, an unidentified friend of Joseph of Arimathea ran, filled a sponge with a sleeping potion, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. When he had received it, Jesus cried out, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and swooned.
Because the Jews did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was apparently already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear.
As evening approached, Joseph of Arimathea went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. He took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock.
There Joseph and the unidentified Jew worked feverishly to nurse Jesus back to life.
Tragically, the Roman spear led to the death of Jesus and the virtual destruction of the Passover Plot. Jesus regained consciousness only long enough to cry out, “Do not let me die in vain. Deceive my disciples into believing I have overcome death and the grave.” With that, he bowed his head and died. Immediately Joseph and the unidentified Jew took the body of Jesus and disposed of it.
During the next forty days the unidentified Jew appeared to the disciples and through many convincing fabrications deluded them into believing that he was the resurrected Christ. Beginning with Moses and all the prophets he explained to them everything that the Scriptures had taught concerning the Messiah — how he should suffer, die, and be raised again. The hearts of the disciples burned within as they believed the lie.
To this very day, the Passover Plot engineered by Jesus, Joseph, and the unidentified Jew continues to delude millions into believing that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead.1
Mythologies 27:22-41Changing Attitudes Toward The Resurrection Of Jesus By: Gary R. Habermas
When considering recent critical responses to the resurrection of Jesus, believers may envision the centuries-old, well-worn alternatives. Did Jesus’ disciples steal His dead body, as mentioned in Matthew? Five such counter-moves are found in the gospels, with three of them even being proposed by believers! The most recent scholarly research has been significantly more open toward Jesus’ healing the sick and predicting His resurrection beforehand, His burial tomb being empty, and even His resurrection appearances. So the latest brand of criticism has often shifted gears, with critics now responding more frequently with what I term metacritiques — comebacks that question the overall resurrection message instead of disputing individual items within the story. Two of these approaches are considered here: (1) resurrections simply do not occur, there is insufficient evidence ever to establish them, and (2) we cannot use the New Testament writings to support the Resurrection because it is a biased or prejudiced text.
More than one approach should be used in answer to the first challenge. Naturalism itself should be challenged. If this worldview is going to be utilized as the basis for questioning the Resurrection, then this critical starting point itself must be established first. Regarding the second challenge, something must be wrong with this charge from the start, because critical scholars not only allow well-attested New Testament texts but employ them!
On today’s Bible Answer Man broadcast, Hank discusses the issue raised by skeptics that Christians are irrational because we believe in a God we cannot see. In reality, says Hank, it’s irrational for someone to suppose that what cannot be seen doesn’t exist. After all, Christians and skeptics alike recognize such things as electrons, or the laws of logic, or the force of gravity—all of which are unseen. The order and complexity of the universe testify to the existence of an uncaused first cause. The more you contemplate the grandeur of the universe in which we reside, the more we are brought in touch with the glory and the grandeur of the invisible God who made himself known in time and space through the visible Jesus Christ.
Hank also answers the following questions:
Are we meant to keep the Sabbath, or is it no longer under the law?
I feel ripped between Protestantism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Roman Catholicism and I’m not sure which one to stick with. Can you advise me?
I am having trouble trusting God; I read about His love, but I don’t feel it personally. Do you have any wisdom on the nature of God as it relates to me?All Sermons by Hank Hanegraaff