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Questions & Answers: History of Christianity


History of Christianity

What were the main issues discussed in each of the Ecumenical Synods?

The ecumenical (from the Gr. οἰκουμένη, civilised world) synods (from the Gr. σύνοδος, travelling together, common way) are symptomatic for the ecclesial mindset and experience, manifesting the communal dimension of our faith. The seven ecumenical synods share in common the fact that – while addressing the various heresies which challenged the Church of the first millennium – they have formulated doctrines representing crucial guidelines for our faith and life till the end of times. It is important to note that ‘formulating’ cannot be mistaken for ‘innovating’; the canonisation of a doctrine means to bring it to a clear and purely apostolic expression, in order to constitute a faithful guide into the Christian mystery.

Punctually, the seven ecumenical synods debated:

The first (Nicaea, 325AD) – the heresy of Arius, who denied the divinity of Christ, considering him a mere creature. Against Arianism, the Church stated that Christ is the Lord, truly God and Only-begotten Son of God, of one essence with the Father, from whom he is eternally born and not created in time.

The second (Constantinople, 381AD) – the heresy of Macedonius, who denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit, considering him as inferior to the Father and the Son. Against Macedonianism, the Church stated that the Holy Spirit is Lord and Giver of life, originating eternally from the Father and being worshipped and glorified together with the Father and the Son as their equal. The most famous outcome of the first two synods is the (Nicene-Constantinopolitan) Creed.

The third (Ephesus, 431AD) – the heresy of Nestorius, who was unable to acknowledge the inner ‘hypostatic’ relation between the two natures, divine and human, of Christ, speaking of two persons (acting subjects). Against Nestorianism, the Church stated that there is one Christ, the incarnate Son and Logos of God, who united hypostatically (in his own eternal person) the human nature he assumed from the Theotokos. As a direct consequence of the hypostatic union, the Church emphasised the existential outcomes of the incarnation, namely the humanisation of God (who was truly crucified in the flesh) and respectively the deification of man (who was truly introduced in the divine life).

The fourth (Chalcedon, 451AD) – the heresy of Eutychius, who affirmed that the human nature of Christ was so much deified that it was eventually absorbed by his divinity; therefore in Christ would have been just one nature, the divine. Against Eutychianism (or Monophysitism), the Church stated that although the hypostatic union is perfect from the very moment of Christ’s conception, none of the two natures – divine and human – is changed or abolished. Contemplated from the point of view of his two unconfused natures, Christ is truly God and truly man; contemplated from the point of view of the undivided hypostasis/person, there is one Christ who lived the features of his both natures in a complex way (a mode labelled by later theologians as theandricity, Godmanhood).

The fifth (Constantinople, 553AD) – various heresies, such as the late Palestinian Origenism (speaking of the pre-existence of the souls, interpreting God’s creation in pessimistic terms, denying the permanence of the Logos’ incarnation and announcing the final restoration of all beings, including the demons) and a series of Antiochian authors who either supported Nestorius or have been his inspiration (Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrus, Ibas of Edessa). The council represents an essential phase within the ecclesial process of articulating dogmatically the reality of incarnation and its salvific consequences, on the one hand, also of interpreting Chalcedon in light of Ephesus and the traditional Christology as formulated by St Cyril of Alexandria. The most famous outcome of this council is the hymn Ὁ Μονογενής, Only-begotten.

The sixth (Constantinople, 680AD) – two related Christological heresies, intended as compromises between the Orthodox and the Monophysites: Monoenergism (teaching that in Christ was active or energetic only the divine nature) and Monotheletism (teaching that in Christ was manifested only the divine will). Against the two heresies, the Church stated that since the hypostatic union did not annihilate the characteristics of the two natures, we must acknowledge that both are active in Christ. More specifically, according to the natures, in Christ there are two energies and two wills, and according to the hypostasis one complex (theandric) energy and will.

The seventh (Nicaea, 787AD) – the iconoclasm, or the heresy of those denying the possibility of visually representing God and the saints, also the legitimacy of the icon veneration. The Church stated against the iconoclasts that since God the Logos assumed hypostatically our flesh, becoming visible, we can represent him in the icons, together with his saints who are his living icons. The council specified also that (1) the icons express visually what the Scripture proclaims by words, (2) iconography represents the Bible of the analphabets, and (3) the veneration addressed to the icons goes to the originals (the persons represented by them).

It is obvious that all the above mentioned heresies still exist, even if under various forms, determining us to remain faithful to the ecumenical synods as the accurate expression of the apostolic faith. Also important to note is the fact that by all their decisions, the ecumenical synods defended ultimately the possibility of our participation in the divine life and deification through Christ and the Holy Spirit.

If we put aside for a while faith, can one believe in the resurrection of Jesus based solely on historical evidence?

1. Could the Bible have been made up, and have nothing to do with real events?

The first thing I would like to say is that if one reads the Bible carefully, and particularly if one tries to live as the Bible says, one can come to feel that this Book is truly genuine and holy. Secondly, the Bible has been studied in a very scholarly and scientific way. Such an inquiry can lead to a conclusion that the Bible does not have the features of legend, but of genuine history, of genuine eyewitness accounts. For example, if you study the different accounts of the Resurrection, you will soon discover contradictions.

If you were making up these accounts, you would not have made it so difficult for those analysing what you wrote. Such contradictions are exactly what you would expect if different people had to recall what they witnessed. These contradictions can be harmonized, solutions that are at least feasible have been worked out, this has been difficult, but it can be done.

Another piece of evidence comes from the historical fact that if someone had made up the Resurrection story, they would not have had women being the first to witness the Resurrection: the testimony of women in first century Palestine was universally regarded as useless. The Gospel writers however recorded what actually happened.

2. Could those that said they saw Jesus after his death have lied?

We know that these people changed the whole world, and many of them died for what they believed. If they knew they were lying, they would not have had the strength to achieve such amazing things.

3. Can we be sure that Jesus’ tomb truly was found empty?

It would have been so easy for the enemies of the Christians to disprove what the Christians were saying: they could have simply presented the body in the tomb. It is precisely because they could not find such a body that they resorted to saying that someone must have stolen the body.

4. Could those that saw the Resurrected Christ actually have seen a vision or a hallucination?

We must not lose sight of the fact that on multiple occasions and under various circumstances different individuals and groups of people (including over 500 at once) experienced appearances of Jesus alive. If you study Jewish religion of the time, no-one ever talked about Resurrection of an individual. Those that saw the Risen Christ were not expecting this, they were in no way primed.

There are other objections, but these are easy to dismiss and not highly regarded amongst scholars. In summary, if one looks rationally at the evidence we have for the Resurrection of Jesus, one can decide that this probably was a historical event that really occurred. Of course, a Christian, even one who has leanings toward rational thought, has other reasons to believe in God. He just has to look around him, and within himself, and can come to the conclusion that it is a lot more likely there is a God than that there is only a purposeless physical universe.

Ultimately, however, true and deep faith is a gift of God, a gift to the sincere and humble- “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

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