Thursday, July 24, 2014

Myth and Fact at the Council of Nicaea

by Scott McClare

The First Council of Nicaea, held in AD 325, was a watershed event in the history of Christianity. It was so significant, we now divide church history into ante-Nicene and post-Nicene periods. Yet many Christians have a relatively poor idea what actually went on at this ecumenical council. As a result, many other religious movements and skeptics of Christianity have been able to weave their own narrative about it, presenting this crucial event—a triumph of orthodoxy over heresy—as the moment where everything seemed to go wrong with the church.

Many New Agers, for example, assert that the Council of Nicaea removed all references to reincarnation from the Bible. Other people claim it established the papacy, or that emperor Constantine's involvement established the state-run church. Religious movements that deny the deity of Christ point to Nicaea as the point where that doctrine was first declared. Anti-Trinitarians say the same about the doctrine of the Trinity. Still others claim that the Nicene council selected the four Gospels out of all the competing "gospels" and declared them canonical—an argument that some Muslim apologists have taken up to question the Bible's authenticity.

A decade ago, Dan Brown's bestselling thriller The Da Vinci Code introduced these conspiracy theories into popular culture. He writes:

"At this gathering," Teabing said, "many aspects of Christianity were debated and voted upon—the date of Easter, the role of the bishops, the administration of sacraments, and, of course, the divinity of Jesus."

"I don't follow. His divinity?"

"My dear," Teabing declared, "until that moment in history, Jesus was viewed by His followers as a mortal prophet . . . a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless. . . . Jesus' establishment as 'the Son of God' was officially proposed and voted on by the Council of Nicaea. . . .

"Constantine commissioned and financed a new Bible, which omitted those gospels that spoke of Christ's human traits and embellished those gospels that made Him godlike. The earlier gospels were outlawed, gathered up, and burned."[i]

What really happened at Nicaea? The council was a significant event, but not the sinister gathering that Dan Brown and others imply.

In about AD 313, Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, preached a sermon in which he taught that the Son of God was co-eternal with, and of the same substance (in Greek, homoousios) as, God the Father. That is, Father and Son were two Persons, yet one Being. A presbyter in Alexander's see, Arius, countered that the Son had a finite beginning: he was the first thing the Father ever created out of nothing. "There was a time when the Son was not," Arius famously argued. Furthermore, he was of different substance than the Father (heteroousios).

A local council excommunicated Arius in 321, but the theological controversy had already spread beyond Egypt, turning Eastern Christendom into a theological battleground and threatening the unity of both the church and the Roman Empire. After a diplomatic solution failed, Constantine summoned the first ecumenical (universal) church council to settle the issue, in 325.

About 300 bishops assembled in Nicaea, near present-day Istanbul. The vast majority were from the East; only a dozen Western bishops were there. The bishop of Rome, Sylvester, was notably absent, and sent two delegates instead. Arius was there by imperial command, supported by about 20 bishops. Alexander spearheaded the small orthodox party, assisted by a young deacon named Athanasius. The majority of participants, led by Eusebius of Caesarea, represented a "middle" opinion. They agreed with Alexander that Christ was fully God, but objected to the term homoousios, believing it aided the Sabellians (an anti-Trinitarian heresy that said Father and Son were one Person and one Being). They instead proposed a compromise: the Son was homoiousios, of similar substance.
 
For about a month in June and July of 325, Constantine presided as both sides of the issue debated. Arius argued for his position, and Alexander for the orthodox one, helped by the theologically brilliant Athanasius. (It is said that the debates became so intense, that jolly old St. Nicholas of Myra lost his cool and slapped Arius in the face! This, too, is probably myth.) The middle group proposed a creed that had the emperor's and Arians' approval, and avoided the term homoousios. However, Alexander's party wanted to refute the Arians, not accommodate them, so they rejected it. (The difference between homoousios and homoiousios—orthodoxy and heresy—is literally one iota, a single stroke of the pen.)

In the end, the orthodox party won the middle over. They drafted a creed of their own: affirming Jesus Christ as "being of one substance [homoousion] with the Father," and declaring: "whosoever shall say that there was a time when the Son of God was not . . . the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes them."[ii] Despite what Dan Brown says, the vote was nowhere near close: only Arius and two bishops refused to affirm it.

The Nicene Creed was the Council of Nicaea's most important achievement. However, they also dealt with other, less controversial issues. These included the responsibilities of bishops, priests, and other clergy; how to deal with Christians who had denied the faith under persecution, but later repented; and the dating of Easter.[iii]

On the other hand, the Council did not invent any new doctrine. The early church believed in the deity of Christ, and their writings affirm it repeatedly. Rather, the bishops recognized that the doctrine was taught in Scripture, and defended it against Arius' errors. Similarly, Nicaea did not define the Trinity: that word was first used to describe the divine nature about a century earlier. Nor did they define or even discuss the canon. In AD 325, the church already agreed on a New Testament similar to the present one. The four Gospels were the earliest books recognized as divinely inspired, and were never confused with the many unorthodox "gospels" that appeared in the early centuries of the Christian era. The more offbeat claim that the Council censored the Bible's teaching on reincarnation, is an empty assertion made without any evidence whatsoever. Many ante-Nicene biblical manuscripts survive. They are virtually identical with the modern Bible. It never mentioned reincarnation at all.

The conspiracy theorists overestimate the power the Council of Nicaea had. They refuted and denounced the Arians, but didn't silence them. Arians continued to cause controversy throughout the fourth century. Two later emperors, Constantius and Valens, were Arians. Athanasius succeeded Alexander and continued to oppose them, but in 335 a synod of bishops at Tyre exonerated Arius and forced Athanasius into exile. Overall, Athanasius was deposed from the see of Alexandria five times. His perseverance in the face of overwhelming opposition inspired the saying, Athanasius contra mundum: "Athanasius against the world." The Synod of Tyre was not overturned until 381, when the Council of Constantinople again definitively denounced Arianism. It still exists today, mainly in the theology of Jehovah's Witnesses.

Why do these myths about the Council of Nicaea persist? My guess is that unbelievers of various kinds hope to undermine Christianity by claiming its core beliefs are man-made inventions or corruptions of the original teachings of Jesus. To give an effective answer to skeptics of Christianity, we need to know what we believe and why we believe it, and also how those beliefs came to be. These attacks on the faith wither in the light of the true facts of history. An accurate understanding of church history removes a potential stumbling block to unbelief, helping to "destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:5).


[i]           Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code (New York: Doubleday, 2003; Anchor, 2006), 306-07.
[ii]          This creed is similar, but not identical, to the familiar Nicene Creed that was actually drafted at the Council of Constantinople in AD 381.
[iii]         "First Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325)," New Advent, <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3801.htm>, accessed 19 July 2014.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Did Jesus only Condemn Religious People’s Behaviour?

By: Jojo Ruba

Just a few months ago, I engaged in an on-line debate with a Toronto pastor and blogger. He wrote a blog called, Why Christians Should Let Non-Christians Off the Moral Hook,[1] which argues that we shouldn’t expect non-Christians to behave like Christians. This is of course, a biblical truth that the Apostle Paul affirms in passages like 1 Corinthians 5. In that passage, Paul rebukes the church in Corinth for tolerating an incestuous relationship in their congregation. In contrast, he says not to judge outside the church in the same way, saying, “I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world[2] (v9-10).”

But the pastor took this argument further and suggested that we should never condemn non-believers for their actions. I responded (in comments since deleted) that I agreed with him when it comes to things like divorce or sex outside of marriage—we shouldn’t expect non-Christians to live like Christians on those issues.  It’s also hard to convince most people, Christian or not, that Christians should advocate for laws solely because the Bible teaches Christians to behave a certain way. In fact this would contradict the passage in Corinthians.

But I also asked if this applies to issues like murder or rape? Would he speak out against these laws because they also reflect biblical teachings?  What if he saw a child being beaten or a gay person being beaten by a non-Christian would he not tell that person to stop? Wouldn’t he expect a just society to make those acts illegal?

His response? 
I can see we're in very different camps. Let's respect that. I also live in Canada where things are very different than in the US. That said, I take incredible comfort in a first century church that turned the world upside down through a subversive spirituality that eventually captured people from all walks of life. And changed hearts change culture. Deep change happens from the inside out, not just from the outside in.
Aside from assuming that I was American, this answer seems only spiritual if you ignore the fact that he didn’t tell me what he’d do if he saw a non-Christian beating a child or a gay person!

How then should we respond to this challenge? I think there are four basic ideas we need clarified that help us get to a biblical answer. 

1. There’s a difference between expecting non-Christians to behave like Christians and expecting non-Christians to behave in a civil society.

I often cringe when I see Christians debate non-believers. An obvious example is when the Westboro Baptist Church protesters hold signs that say, “God hates fags,” at public events. Citing biblical verses condemning homosexuality, they expect non-Christians to read their signs and understand biblical teachings.[3]  But that won’t happen when most people, including Christians, can’t even explain concepts like morality or even what the Bible is.[4]
 
But arguing that you should never expect non-Christians to behave as Christians or that we should never judge their behaviour, becomes another extreme. That principle justifies not stopping your Muslim neighbour from practicing honour killings or a secular neighbour from aborting a child or beating their spouse. Moreover, that principle could be used to prevent Christians from being lawyers or police officers or food inspectors—all occupations that require you to judge behaviour. Worse, that also means people like Queen Esther who judged that Haman was doing wrong in trying to wipe out the Jewish people, should have not said anything.[5] I don’t think the Bible justifies refusing to judge Haman’s actions.

And this doesn’t contradict what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 5 if you understand the context:
For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.[6]
Paul, remember, is talking about the specific sin of incest. He’s talking about sexual sin that we can’t judge outside the church because we can’t expect those non-believers to behave like us.

But even if he is talking about every sin, verse 13 is key- Paul says, “God judges.” And the question we need to ask is how does God judge? The Bible mentions many times how He judges and punishes people directly. Other times, He judges through His followers – as prophets (Deborah, Elijah, Elisha, Jonah, John the Baptist etc) or soldiers (Joshua, Samson etc.) or as rulers (David, Esther, Daniel etc.)—all of whom spoke out against the behaviour of non-believers. 

In other words, we are justified in pointing out sin that God has judged and has told us to publicly condemn. The key here is to see how God deals with public and private sins. It is also clear that some sins, like murder, are so disruptive, God mandates secular governments to stop it.  Christians need discernment as they look at how they should deal with the variety of sin in our society – something we’ll discuss more in future blogs. What is important for this article, is knowing that judging bad behaviour outside the church is not condemned in the Bible.

For example, in Romans 13, Paul specifically mentions the role of government to judge actions and to prevent evil from coming to society. Why? Because they are institutions given by God to create a civil society.  That means, particularly, for those of us who live in democratic societies where we are responsible for making laws, we have a duty to help create laws that form a civil society. We have a right to expect that those who live in these societies behave a certain way.[7]
 
2. The Pharisees were not Christians.

Another point to remember is that Christians are held at a higher standard – but that requires us to discern who is and who is not a Christian! I once got into a discussion with a Christian so committed to not judging other people’s faiths, that he said he doesn’t distinguish between who is a Christian and who is not a Christian. I asked him how he evangelizes. How does he know who needs to hear the gospel? His response was that he just evangelizes to everybody!

But that passage in 1 Corinthians clearly states that we are to judge those in the faith and those outside the faith differently because we should expect more from Christians. That means we have to be willing to judge the fruit of people’s lives – what they say and what they do and see if they match how we should live as Christians. I don’t think that requires us to stand at the door of the church and filter out the non-believers. It means we can’t simply affirm that someone who calls himself a follower of God, is actually one. [8]

That’s why the analogy fails when people try to argue that Jesus’ treatment of the Pharisees is comparable to how we should treat fellow Christians. The Pharisees weren’t Christians! They didn’t even claim to be followers of Christ.  When Jesus interacted with them, it was very different with how He interacted with His followers.

3. We need to do more than WWJD.

I know that sounds jarring for those of us who had a wristband, "What Would Jesus Do," but Jesus Himself said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father.”[9]
 
Jesus isn’t saying of course that His followers will die for the sins of the world. When He is using the word “greater,” He’s talking to Philip about the miracles He had performed up to that point and was promising that His disciples would be doing much more in scope.

Jesus is underlining here that we don’t have the same work as Him. He never wrote a gospel, or preached outside of Israel or even had a website! In other words we can’t determine our behaviour solely on whether or not Jesus acted the same way. Clearly Jesus condemned unbelievers’ behaviours but even if He didn’t, that isn’t a good enough an argument to say we should never condemn nonbelievers’ behaviour.

4. Jesus and His disciples did condemn the sin of non-Christians too because they loved God and loved their neighbours. 

Jesus interacted and judged the Pharisees, He judged what Pilate said about Him (John 18: 33-38) and He even judged the thieves on the cross by determining which one went to heaven. This did not contradict His loving nature - this was because of His loving nature. His followers did the same.[10]  

So does this mean we become spiritual busybodies always judging non-Christians’ actions? Well no.  And it isn’t always going to be easy to determine which times we do this and when we don’t. What helps me is to simply ask, what is the most loving thing I can do? What is the best way to serve my community? Even a loving parent allows their child to choose harmful things so they can learn from them but will prescribe limits to ensure that the harm is meant to teach, not destroy their child. I would think a similar principle applies—but that is a discussion for another article.  For now, suffice to say it’s important we acknowledge that we can judge a non-Christians’ behaviour. We could never truly love our neighbours if we couldn’t.


[2] 1 Corinthians 5:9-10, NASB.
[3] In a response to a Baptist church, a church elder argues that the world will not endure sound doctrine. He argued, “It is required that the people of God make good on that charge to reprove, rebuke and exhort. We come from a long line of bold preachers in the Bible that preach God’s word without apology.”
http://www.godhatesfags.com/letters/20140510_response-to-first-southern-baptist-church-junction-city.pdf
[4] The Bible Engagement study found that 55% of Canadians have never even read the Bible. The survey can be found here http://www.bibleengagementstudy.ca 
[5]  Esther Chapters 1-9.
[6]  1 Corinthians 5:12-13, NASB.
[7] The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms begins with a preamble recognizing both rights and responsibilities of Canadians :  1. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.
[8] Matthew 7: 15-17 says, “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.
[9] John 14:12, NASB.
[10] John the Baptist was jailed for speaking out against Herod for sleeping with his brother’s wife (John 14:3), Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 convicted many in Jerusalem of their sin and helped them become Christians and Paul “admonishes” his Roman guards for not listening to him and causing a shipwreck in Acts 27. Other biblical examples abound.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

An Ontological Argument for the Trinity

by Justin Wishart

In Robert Letham’s The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship, his main argument for belief in the Trinity is that God has revealed Himself in a triune nature, as is evidenced by the title’s beginning with In Scripture. This places him squarely within the Reformed/Evangelical approach to knowledge of God, an approach which I fully endorse. However, this is not to say that we shouldn’t be aware of arguments that are extra-biblical as long as we don’t view them as the foundation of our beliefs.[1] They may be useful. In Letham’s History section, he summarizes an ontological argument made by Richard of St. Victor.[2] I have developed my own version of this argument.[3]
An important term to understand in this argument is the term Maximally Great Being (MGB), which is a being than which there can be no greater. For example, if a great being possesses great knowledge, a MGB would be omniscient, and nothing greater than omniscience is possible for any being in the area of knowledge. Thus, a MGB would possess the attribute of omniscience. A MGB would be omnipresent and omnipotent as well, as these terms denote the greatest possible manifestation within their respective areas.
But, wouldn’t a MGB possess love[4] as well? It seems intuitive to believe that a being who possesses love is greater than a being who does not. If we accept this intuition, then a major plank has been set in accepting the overall argument.[5] This being would not merely possess the attribute of love as we imperfectly do, but a MGB would possess love perfectly, a love than which no greater love is possible. The question becomes: what would such a being, in possession of perfect love, “look” like without creation?
If God is Tawid[6], then we have to wonder what it is God loves without creation. The only thing in existence without creation is God, and so the only object for God to love is Himself. While a MGB would love Himself perfectly (He would possess perfect self-love), it is reasonable to think that loving another person perfectly along with loving yourself perfectly is greater than loving yourself perfectly alone. Thus, in order for God to be a MGB, the MGB must have a plurality of persons ontologically inherent as part of His being.[7]  I call this love face-to-face love[8], where your love is directed towards a person specifically.[9]
Likewise, while perfect love can be given to imperfect persons (e.g. humans), it cannot be received perfectly or reciprocated perfectly by imperfect persons. It is also reasonable to think that receiving and reciprocating love perfectly is greater than receiving and reciprocating love imperfectly. Therefore, a MGB would need the plurality of persons to be perfect persons, devoid of any flaws which would hinder the reception and reciprocation of this love. The greatest possible face-to-face love is between at least two perfect beings.
So far, I have argued that a MGB would possess a perfect self-love, and a perfect face-to-face love reciprocated between two perfect persons. However, I would also argue that a MGB would also possess a shoulder-to-shoulder love. Shoulder-to-shoulder love is that love which persons share while working together to accomplish a task.[10] This could take the form of patriotism or parenting. This is logically different from face-to-face love because you can possess shoulder-to-shoulder love without possessing face-to-face love. For example, as a patriot I can have this love for my fellow Canadians without even knowing these Canadians to experience face-to-face love. As such, it is argued that a being which possesses shoulder-to-shoulder love is greater than a being which does not.[11]
For shoulder-to-shoulder love to be possible there needs to be three things: a task, a person doing the task, and a person to accomplish the task with. In Trinitarian language, you need the Father (person), loving the Son (task), with the Holy Ghost (person to share the task with).[12] However, each of these persons would have to be perfect so as to accomplish self-love, face-to-face love, and shoulder-to-shoulder love perfectly.[13] Therefore, a MGB would need to have a plurality of at least three perfect persons within His being.
At this point, if a MGB requires love, then it seems more reasonable that this being must look like something Trinitarian in nature rather than the concept of Tawid would allow. However, a question surfaces at this point: why should we only have three members of the Trinity and not four or more? Isn’t it the case that the more persons to share face-to-face and shoulder-to-shoulder love, the greater the overall love would be?
These are good questions, and one could infer this from our experiences. All things being equal, it seems reasonable to conclude that a larger family possesses greater overall love then a smaller family. However, we cannot infer this about a MGB simply because we are not maximally great as humans. Remember, I argued that the plurality of persons of the MGB must be perfect in order to achieve perfect love. Adding perfection onto perfection does not make something more perfect. Something is either perfect or it is not, and there are no degrees with perfection. While humans can increase and decrease in love, this is only possible since we do not exhibit perfect love. We can move closer or further from perfect love by degrees, but a MGB could not, because a MGB possesses perfect love.
While self-love, face-to-face love, and shoulder-to-shoulder love differ in quality, and require successive persons to realize each form of love, adding a fourth person only seems to add quantity and doesn’t alter the quality or create another category of love. As argued above, adding only quantity doesn’t increase perfection, by definition. A fourth member, or more, seems redundant and redundancy is unnecessary for a MGB.  
As a heavy duty mechanic, I am well acquainted with redundant systems. For example, cars come equipped with emergency brakes. The primary function of an emergency brake is to provide a back-up brake in case your main brake system fails. In imperfect systems redundancies can be a good thing, but there is no failure in a MGB and as such redundancies are completely unneeded.  In fact, it could be argued that a MGB would not be needlessly complex.[14] Therefore, in order not to be redundant, a MGB would only exhibit three persons and not more.
It appears that the Trinity is a much more rational concept for a MGB than Tawid. However, it should come as no surprise that God, as He revealed Himself to us, would make more sense than faulty conceptions of Him. As this argument is new, there may be some further work needed to develop it properly, or there may be some fatal flaw within. However, my belief in the single God as a Trinity does not rest on this or any extra-biblical argument, but on the self-revelation of God.[15] Still, it can be useful to have an extra-biblical argument up your sleeve.


[1] Extra-biblical arguments for any doctrine will always fail to give certainty. Only the words in Scripture can give us this.
[3] Apparently, my argument sounds very similar to Richard Swinburne’s recent argument for the Trinity. While I have not read Swinburne’s work on the subject, a summary can be found here: http://trinities.org/blog/archives/182 (last accessed 04/07/2014).
[4] Love here is defined in the traditional manner as desiring and striving for the best for a being. While I think this is a deficient definition of love, I will use it this way since it enjoys acceptance in the philosophical world.
[5] Likewise, if this intuition is not accepted, then the whole argument fails.
[6] This is the Islamic understanding of the complete unity of God devoid of all distinctions. While this is an Islamic term, I am using it in a general way which includes all monotheistic beliefs outside of Christianity.
[7] A Tawidist could argue that God created creation for Him to love, but this makes God dependant on His creation to augment His status of MGB. I would argue that a MGB would be maximally great in and of Himself, not maximally great due to a relationship with creation.
[8] Face-to-face love is different than self-love. The highest form of face-to-face love is selfless (John 15:13 “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”) and by definition you cannot self-love selflessly. There is a qualitative difference between them.
[9] Don’t confuse my use of face-to-face with physicality; I am using a physical image to point to a concept. God is spirit.
[10] A good example of this is how I view my wife. When I think of my wife as my wife, the love I feel is face-to-face love. When I think of my wife as the mother of my children, the love is also just as powerful, yet it is different. It is shoulder-to-shoulder love.
[11] My bond with my wife is stronger due to our children’s existence. In fact, there have been times when our face-to-face has been low but our shoulder-to-shoulder love as parents was strong enough to hold our overall bond together.
[12] You can change the persons around any which way. The only difference is the way the persons show (and share) love due to the varying relationships within the Trinity.
[13] A possible counter might be that humans experience erotic love, so wouldn’t a MGB also need to participate in erotic love as well to be maximally great? I don’t think so. Erotic love seems designed to increase face-to-face love by increasing intimacy between persons. It also seems designed to create a strong shoulder-to-shoulder love by producing children which the couple must work together to raise. However, if a MGB already possesses perfect love, erotic love is not at all necessary.  
[14] It is a long held tradition within philosophy to accept a simpler explanation over a more complex one. Read this for some justifications for simplicity: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occam%27s_razor#Justifications (last accessed 04/07/2014).
[15] For a good biblical case for the Trinity, read: Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship, P & R Publishing, 2004.