What I tell you three times is true.
Lewis Carroll (1832-1898), The
Hunting of the Snark
Many Christians believe that all essential Christian doctrine
is to be found in the Bible. Some denominations explicitly affirm
this. The Church of England for example, in the sixth of its
39 Anglican Articles of Religion, asserts that "Holy scripture
containeth all things necessary to salvation".
In this section we will look at some of the principal doctrines
adopted by the main Christian Churches over the centuries. Are
they really to be found in holy scripture? If not, how old are
they? How did they arise? What authority do they have, and have
they ever changed?
First let's look at the creeds, the formal, authoritative
statements of Christian doctrine. There have been dozens of
creeds, but most have long since been abandoned and some have
been "lost". By modern standards many surviving texts
are heretical and even blasphemous*.
On the other hand none of the creeds now in use was known to
early Christians. These creeds were formulated mainly from the
fourth century onwards. The Western Church in particular continued
to tamper with them for centuries afterwards. This tampering
was a cause of criticism from the Eastern Churches. The earliest
creeds have now all been discarded, and mention of them is to
be found only in erudite books on ecclesiastical history. Most
modern Christians have never even heard of the Jerusalem Creed
or the Old Roman Creed and would probably be surprised that
the earliest authoritative statements of Christian belief have
The main creeds that are now used are:
The Apostles" Creed: The name suggests
that it was known to the 12 apostles, although there is no evidence
at all to support this (and no Church scholar, however conservative,
would now make such a claim for it). It seems to have developed
from the Old Roman Creed. It was first referred to in a letter
of St Ambrose, around the year 390.
The Athanasian Creed: Traditionally attributed
to St Athanasius (c.296-373), this creed is now generally accepted
to date from some time later. It probably dates from the seventh
century, since it uses terminology that arose only during contemporary
controversies. This creed is still used by the Western Churches,
although it has become something of an embarrassment, and is
rarely used in Anglican Churches. Since 1867 a number of attempts
have been made to remove it from the Book of Common Prayer.
The Nicene Creed: The original Nicene Creed,
agreed at the Ecumenical Council of Nicæa in 325, was
a heavily edited version of one proposed by a leading bishop
This version is hardly ever used now. It was continually amended
over the next century, with successive different versions being
adopted as authoritative by successive Church Councils. The
creed now usually known as the Nicene Creed actually dates from
the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451*
(the fact that it is still called the Nicene Creed provides
an example of how basic facts in Christianity are often misrepresented
to simple believers - many of the faithful innocently imagine
the Nicene Creed to date from the Council of 325). Even this
451 version was later tampered with by the Western Church and,
as we shall see, a late addition is still to be found in the
creed used in Western Churches.
The Eastern Churches accept the Nicene Creed (the AD 451 version),
but have never accepted the other two. All three creeds are
used by the Roman Church but rejected by some Protestants. The
Anglican Church holds that all three "ought thoroughly
to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most
certain warrants of holy Scripture"*.
The following is the Anglican Church's rendering of the
Nicene Creed (more accurately known as the Niceno-Constantinopolitan
Creed). With the exception of the words in bold type it is accepted
by all principal denominations.
I believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven
and earth, And of all things visible and invisible: And in
one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, Begotten
of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light,
Very God of Very God, Begotten, not made, Being of one substance
with the Father, By whom all things were made: Who for us
men and for our salvation came down from Heaven, And was incarnate
by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man, And
was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered
and was buried, And the third day he rose again according
to the Scriptures, And ascended into Heaven, And sitteth on
the right hand of the Father. And he shall come again with
glory to judge both the quick and the dead: Whose kingdom
shall have no end. And I believe in the Holy Ghost, The Lord
and giver of life, Who proceedeth from the Father
and the Son, Who with the Father and the Son
together is worshipped and glorified, Who spake by the Prophets.
And I believe in one Catholic and Apostolick Church. I acknowledge
one Baptism for the remission of sins. And I look for the
resurrection of the dead, And the life of the world to come.
It would not be practical to print all the variations of all
the creeds in use today, but this gives a flavour of their style
We will now look at some of the most widely accepted Christian
doctrines, concentrating on those prescribed by the principal
For the right Faith is, that we believe and confess: that
our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man....
The Creed of St Athanasius
The doctrine of the Incarnation is one of the most fundamental
Christian doctrines. It asserts that Christ was both fully God
and fully man, with one "person" but two distinct
"natures". Yet it is not at all certain that Jesus"
earliest followers recognised him as God. Certainly the Ebionites
did not, and there is every reason to believe that their views
matched those of the apostles more closely than any other faction.
Biblical references to Jesus being God are rare and suspicious,
and seem to have been added after Jesus had been deified by
some of his followers.
Uneducated people in the classical world were familiar with
the idea of gods descending to Earth and were unlikely to be
interested in a humble Jewish prophet, or even a mere human
messenger from a god. The fact that Jesus was already dead would
have made it difficult for anyone in the Greek world to take
him seriously. Much more promising was the idea of Jesus being
the son of God. To the Jews the term signified an angel, a prophet,
or a great rabbi; but to the Hellenic world it meant something
quite different. The Greeks and Romans knew many examples of
earthly sons of gods: super-heroes born as a result of matings
between gods and mortals, a number of whom themselves became
gods. In most of the stories a male god impregnated a mortal
women. Generally she was a virgin. Invariably she conceived
a child. Usually the child was a boy. Frequently the boy grew
up into a superhuman who was subsequently deified. As we shall
see later, many such stories were told, and we have every reason
to suppose that the less sophisticated strata of society believed
It is against this background that the idea of Jesus being
an adopted son of God (i.e. a great rabbi) seems to have developed
into the proposition that he was God himself. Exactly what this
could mean, if the Jewish principle of one God was to be sustained,
was to cause a great deal of trouble in later centuries. The
doctrine of the Incarnation developed as follows:
- Christians divided in the first few centuries into the groups
we have already identified: (i) Ebionites and others who believed
Jesus to have been a man, (ii) a Pauline faction some of whom
believed Jesus to have been superhuman, and (iii) a number
of Gnostic sects, most of which believed Jesus to have been
divine rather than human.
- By the fourth century the Pauline faction was dominant and
questions arose as to Jesus" superhumanity. The prevailing
line seems to have been a set of beliefs now regarded as heretical
and now known collectively as Monarchianism. This term embraces
a range of beliefs from Dynamic Monarchianism to Modal Monarchianism
(Sabellianism, Patripassionism). Dynamic Monarchianism held
that Jesus had been a mere man upon whom the Holy Spirit had
descended, as described in the Mark gospel. God had adopted
him, so those who believed this are also known as Adoptionists.
Modal Monarchianists held a range of views about the relative
importance of God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
The Ecumenical Council of Nicæa in 325 affirmed by a
majority vote that Jesus Christ was truly God, a decision
that resulted in schisms amongst believers.
- Questions now arose as to Jesus" humanity. If he was
God, could he be wholly man as well? The First Ecumenical
Council of Constantinople in 381 affirmed his perfect manhood.
The view affirmed by this council contradicted a view favoured
by an earlier one at Antioch in 264, which had denied the
true humanity of Jesus by saying that he did not have a human
soul. Once again, the Church was racked by schism.
- Many deduced that Jesus must have had some sort of dual
personality. He must have had within him a divine "person"
and a human "person". Others said that he had only
one "person". The Alexandrian one person
party eventually emerged triumphant. It was thus decided that
Jesus Christ had only one person, despite being both fully
God and fully man. This simply did not make sense to many,
and once again the Church fell into schism.
- Having settled the number of "persons", the question
now arose as to how one "person" could accommodate
both God and man. One solution was that he had two distinct
"natures". This was affirmed by the Ecumenical Council
of Chalcedon in 451, reversing the decision of a previous
council held at Ephesus just two years earlier*.
Once again, those who rejected the new line were sent into
- The decrees of Chalcedon were amended by the Fifth Ecumenical
Council at Constantinople in 553, apparently with the hope
of reuniting the warring schismatic factions. Later there
was another round of difficulties and dissent over the question
how many "wills" Jesus had possessed.
This is how the doctrine of the Incarnation was settled: by
a series of majority votes, carried against significant opposition.
As we shall see later the competing ideas were generally inspired
by power struggles between Alexandria, Antioch and Constantinople.
Decisions were affected by undue influence, duress and even
murder. Bribery was used not only to buy votes, but also to
manipulate crowds of slaves and the poor in one doctrinal direction
or the other. Bands of violent monks were employed to terrorise
the opposition and influence the decision. Sometimes the final
decisions were contrary to the decisions of previous "infallible"
councils and sometimes they overturned decision made by an "infallible"
emperor. Bishops walked a fine line between the competing factions.
Proterius, Bishop of Alexandria, for example, was literally
torn to pieces by his own flock for accepting the decision of
the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon.
The hand of God was not obvious in these decisions, and some
modern Christian scholars have speculated that if Nestorius,
Bishop of Constantinople had been richer, less principled, and
a better politician, it is more than possible that what is now
regarded as the Nestorian heresy would be orthodoxy, and what
is now regarded as orthodoxy would be the Cyrilic heresy (see
The doctrine of the Incarnation as we now know it was never
stated before the middle of the fifth century. The Roman Catholic,
Eastern Orthodox and Protestant Churches accept it. The second
of the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church affirms it. Nevertheless
many Christians are not convinced. As we shall see later, many
modern Church scholars hold the concept of the Incarnation to
be unintelligible, a view shared by most secular philosophers.
The doctrine is rejected by Unitarian Churches , Jehovah's Witnesses, and others.
The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son: neither made,
nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.
The Creed of St Athanasius
The Bible often refers to the Holy Ghost, but nowhere explicitly
identifies it with God , except arguably in the Johannine
comma, an acknowledged addition to the text of the John
gospel (see page 52 ). The creed
adopted by the Ecumenical Council of Nicæa failed to mention
that the Holy Ghost was divine, let alone a member of the Trinity
(it had been referred to in the first draft, but without any
suggestion of divinity). The question seems to have arisen in
the next few generations. When it did arise, people speculated
that the Holy Ghost might be "force", or a created
being, or God; some confessed that they did not know what to
The faction that said it was God eventually triumphed. Those
who denied the full divinity came to be known as Macedonians
or Pneumatomachians ("Spirit-fighters"*).
The Holy Ghost was declared to be divine by the Second Ecumenical
Council, held at Constantinople in 381. The Holy Ghost was accepted
as one person of the Trinity, but problems arose as to the relationship
between the Holy Ghost and the Father and Son. The Nicene Creed
(the one agreed at the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451)
acknowledged the divinity of the Holy Ghost, referring to the
"Holy Ghost ... who proceedeth from the Father".
In 589 a local council at Toledo added the words "and
the Son" (in Latin filioque) to this, an action
that was absolutely forbidden by earlier ecumenical councils.
In time the whole Western Church adopted these new words. The
addition was re-affirmed in 796 by a synod of the Western Church
at Fréjus , and soon afterwards it was approved by Charlemagne
(c.742-814), who seems to have had no understanding whatsoever
of the theological implications. Now the filioque was
Western orthodoxy. For theologians the matter was one of the
utmost importance. Adherents of the Western Church accused those
in the East of heresy because they omitted the filioque
from the creed. As the Eastern Churches pointed out it was the
Western Church that had fallen into heresy by tampering with
the creed without ecumenical authority*.
This dispute contributed to the great schism between the Eastern
Churches and the Western Church. The insertion is still adhered
to by the Roman and Protestant Churches. In the Anglican Church
it is confirmed in Article 5 of the 39 Articles. All impartial
historians acknowledge that the filioque is bogus.
Naturally, it is still considered heretical by the Eastern Churches.
So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost
And yet they are not three Gods, but one God.
The Creed of St Athanasius
The doctrine of the Trinity asserts that God has three persons:
the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. It seems to have been introduced
into the Church around AD 180 and was first stated explicitly
by Tertullian, who is now regarded as a heretic, around the
end of the second century.
doctrine of the Trinity is nowhere mentioned in Greek manuscripts
of the Bible, except in passages that are acknowledged as late
additions, such as Matthew 28:19, or in ambiguous passages,
such as 2 Corinthians 13:14. A clear reference to the doctrine,
the Johannine comma, was inserted into Latin translations
of the New Testament (at 1 John 5:7), from where it found its
way into the Authorised Version. Footnotes in modern translations
confirm that additions were made to the original text, generally
without mentioning the significance of the additions.
The idea of a divine Trinity had been popular in many older
religions. The Hindus had, and still have, Brahma, Vishnu and
Shiva (Creator, Preserver and Destroyer). The Egyptians had
a Trinity comprising Osiris, Isis and Horus (Father, Mother
and Son), while the Babylonians had An, Bel and Ea (Heaven,
Earth and Underworld). One Roman goddess was worshipped as a
triple deity with a similar division of responsibility: Luna,
Diana and Hecate (Sky, Earth and Underworld respectively). The
Romans also adopted an Etruscan Trinity (Tinia, Uni and Menvra)
and converted them into their own threesome: Jupiter, Juno and
Minerva. The Greeks divided the Universe between three brothers:
Zeus, Poseidon and Hades (Heaven, Sea and Underworld). Even
Plato and his followers thought of his three archical
(i.e. original) principles as three gods.
fact the Greeks had many examples of divine Trinities, some
of them regarded as single entities with three aspects. For
example, the three Fates were regarded as a single entity. Other
triads include the Graia, the Gorgons, the Furies, the Horai,
and the Charities or Graces*.
According to a story related by Hesiod, there were originally
three Muses. Moon goddesses were often threefold, their three
persons representing different lunar phases. Hecate,
one of a threesome already mentioned, was associated with places
where three roads met, and where statues with three faces were
set up. Most significantly of all, Zeus himself was worshipped
as a divine Trinity*. The
Celts also had a three headed god, called Lugus, identified
with the Roman god Mercury, Greek Hermes.
Artistic images of the Christian Trinity
and a Hindu Trinity
Egyptian threesome of Father, Mother and Son seems to have been
the Trinity most favoured by early Christians who sought to
fit their theology into a known pattern. They saw the role of
Mother in the divine family being played by Sophia,
the Divine or Holy Wisdom. The Father, his Word and his Wisdom
were described explicitly as a Triad, by a late second century
Bishop of Antioch*. But
the Church Fathers were not keen on women, so as we shall see
(page 229), Sophia lost her place in the divine family. By the
fifth century AD her position in the divine threesome had been
taken over by the Holy Spirit*.
So it was that the Christian Trinity consists of Father, Son
(= the Word) and Holy Spirit.
The concept of a Christian Trinity seems to have taken some
centuries to develop, slowly accommodating Greek ideas. Some
early Christians who knew of the doctrine of the Trinity rejected
it as an invention. The Ebionites rejected it, and so did Cerinthus
and Carpocrates. Before the Ecumenical Council of Nicæa
in 325, God the Father had been supreme. Afterwards the Word
(logos) was co-equal, and later still so was the Holy
Ghost. Now God would comprise three co-equal persons. Anyone
who preferred the earlier orthodoxy, with the Father being supreme,
would not be tolerated. In 386, a Spanish bishop called Priscillian,
who held the pre-Nicene line, became the first Christian in
Western Europe to be executed for heresy.
With opposition eliminated, the doctrine of the Trinity became
established in time in both Eastern and Western Churches. It
was adopted by the Anglican Church and appears in the first
of the 39 Articles of Religion. To deny the Trinity was for
centuries heretical and blasphemous, and therefore punishable
by death. Nevertheless learned men did deny it. Some who rejected
it came to be known as Unitarians, because they stressed the
Unity not the Trinity of God. Many dissenting sects, including
some Presbyterians and Congregationalists, are Unitarian. Jehovah's Witnesses consider the doctrine of the Trinity to be an invention
of the Devil. Others consider the concept of one God with three
"persons" to be meaningless.
The whole area has become a philosophical quagmire. Many Christians
regard as totally meaningless what others consider to be central
to their faith. The World Council of Churches has sometimes
required member Churches to be Trinitarians: sometimes it has
He descended into Hell.
The Apostles" Creed
is a common Christian belief that Christ descended into Hell
after his death and remained there until his resurrection three
days later. The idea was that Jesus had gone to Hell to preach
to the patriarchs and prophets, and to rescue them from torment.
This incident is known as the Harrowing of Hell. The
story has no biblical foundation. Indeed it clearly contradicts
the words of Jesus when he said that one of the men crucified
with him would be with him that day in paradise (Luke 23:43).
visit was presaged by other gods. The Canaanite god Baal, for
example, descended into the realm of Mot, the god of death from
where the High God El attempted to redeem him. Greek heroes
often visited Hades on rescue missions. Theseus had gone there
to rescue Persephone; Orpheus had been to retrieve his wife
Euridice. Hercules went to capture the three-headed guard dog
Cerberus. Perhaps inspired by Greek stories, someone somewhere
inserted into biblical texts a mention of the Lord God visiting
the dead and preaching to them. Some of the Church Fathers were
evidently misled by these insertions, which they took to be
genuine*. The insertions
were later identified as bogus and are omitted from all versions
of the Bible now in common use.
The belief that Christ went down to Hell seems to have become
popular in the fourth century, especially amongst the Arians,
who are now regarded as heretics. The belief caught on in the
Western Church, and found its way into the Apostles" Creed.
It is accepted by the Anglican Church, specifically in Article
3 of the 39 Articles. Nonconformists are divided about it, sometimes
even within the same denomination. For example, British Methodists
generally accept it, but American ones do not, and therefore
omit mention of it from their version of the Apostles"
The third day he rose again from the dead, He ascended into
Heaven,.... The Apostles" Creed
The concept of life after death and resurrection had been unknown
to the Jews before they were exposed to Greek influences. This
explains why resurrection is mentioned in the Old Testament
only in late apocalyptic writings*,
i.e. around and after the lifetime of Jesus. It also explains
why traditionalist Jews such as the Sadducees rejected the concept
, as did some early Christians (e.g. 1 Corinthians 15:12)*.
The Greek influence explains why other early Christians adopted
the view that resurrected bodies would be spherical: resurrected
bodies would be perfect, and Plato had described the sphere
as the perfect shape.
There is no explanation of the doctrine of the Resurrection
anywhere in scripture, so Church scholars have had to resort
to apocryphal backwaters such as 2 Maccabees, 1 Enoch, and 2
Baruch in order to try to make sense of it. The present doctrine
is based on the words of St Paul, especially his account in
1 Corinthians 15. As a Greek Jew, Paul would have known that
his gentile target audience would be familiar with the idea
of the offspring of a god and a mortal being raised from the
dead to become immortal. Herakles (Hercules), Dionysus (Bacchus),
Æskelepios (Asclepius), Castor and Orion were all credited
with having done it. Roman emperors were ascribed divine fathers,
and were almost routinely promoted to gods after their own deaths.
The concept of a mortal having been raised from the dead as
an immortal thus provided an established model for the doctrine
of the Resurrection.
That the doctrine was not accepted by all was acknowledged
by Paul himself in 1 Corinthians 15:12. At some stage in the
early centuries after Jesus" death, resurrection stories
were apparently added to the gospels not all appear in
the earliest known (fourth century) manuscripts. Some early
Christians rejected the Resurrection. The Spanish bishop Priscillian,
the first Christian in Western Europe to be executed as a heretic,
denied both the Resurrection and the Trinity both of
them novel doctrines at the time.
The doctrine of the resurrection is now accepted by all the
main denominations. It is affirmed in Article 4 of the 39 Articles
of the Anglican Church.
For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made
1 Corinthians 15:22
The doctrine of Original Sin asserts that all people since
Adam and Eve (with one or two exceptions) have been born sinful.
It is based on a passage from Romans*:
Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and
death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all
For over three centuries this was interpreted in a number of
different ways. Towards the end of the fourth century, St Augustine
suggested that it meant that sin was conveyed through the sex
act to any child thereby conceived*.
The idea seems to have been as much a product of Augustine's previous religion, Manichæism, as anything else*
, but it cannot have helped that he was using a faulty Latin
translation of the Bible. The original Greek says that we all
die because we all sin, but Augustine's Latin text said
that we all die because of Adam, in whom we all sin. So it was
that Augustine founded his doctrine of Original Sin on a misunderstanding.
Augustine held that baptism removed the stain of Original Sin.
Babies who died unbaptised were thus sinful and destined for
Hell. The doctrine was condemned as a novelty by some but accepted
by others, and came to be accepted as part of orthodox belief
in the Western Church.
Despite its Old Testament justification, the doctrine of Original
Sin was accepted neither by the Jews nor later by the Muslims.
It was regarded with scepticism in the Eastern Christian Churches,
where it was never accepted into orthodoxy. Even in the Western
Church it has been argued about by scholars ever since its first
exposition. The fate of unbaptised children was particularly
troubling, and they were later consigned to a holding area,
called Limbo, located on the borders of Hell according
to the Western theologians, although this place remained unknown
to Eastern theologians.
The biblical passage quoted might be used to support an argument
that death is caused by sin, but it does not even hint that
sin can be passed from parent to child like a sexually transmitted
disease, a premise that lies at the heart of the doctrine. Nevertheless,
all the main denominations in the Western Church accept it,
and it appears in Article 9 of the 39 Articles of the Anglican
This is my body which is given for you:....
At the Last Supper Jesus is represented as having told his
disciples that the bread was his body and the drink was his
And as they did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake
it, and gave to them, and said, Take, eat: this is my body.
And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave
it to them: and they all drank of it. And he said unto them,
This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many.
Mark 14:22-24 cf. Luke 22:19-20 and Matthew 26:26-28
In Luke 22:19 Jesus tells the apostles that they should remember
him when they take and eat bread. It is not clear that this
injunction refers to any occasion other than the Last Supper.
Wine is not mentioned in the injunction, the other gospels do
not mention the injunction at all. Nowhere is it suggested that
it applies to anyone except the apostles. To justify these extensions
it is necessary to refer to 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, and to John
6, especially 6:47-58.
From early times Christians have eaten bread and drunk wine
in remembrance of the Last Supper. As so often, early Christians
had a model at hand. Dionysus, the son of Zeus, had been killed
and had risen from the dead. His followers drank wine and ate
meat to symbolise his blood and his body. Some time after the
early Christians began to imitate this practice, their version
of it started taking on the characteristic of a solemn rite
rather than a meal. The rite is now alternatively known as the
Lord's Supper, Eucharist or Mass.
No father of the Church asserted that the bread and wine became
flesh and blood in any real sense. Later Christian scholars
affirmed that they did, but none explained fully what this could
mean. In the Middle Agesthe question of exactly
what the words did mean was systematically considered
by theologians. Were the bread and wine truly converted into
flesh and blood, or were they merely tokens, representing flesh
and blood? On the one hand most Christians "knew"
that the bread would bleed if a nail were pushed into it, for
example by a malicious sceptic. On the other hand bread still
tasted like bread, and wine still tasted like wine. The answer,
which made sense in the philosophy of the day, was that though
the outward appearance remained unchanged, the substance of
the bread and wine was transformed into flesh and blood. This
view was defined and declared true by the Western Church at
the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. The supposed transformation
of the substance is known as transubstantiation.
Bible gives little if any support for the doctrine of transubstantiation.
No Church Father affirmed it, and neither did any other early
writer. Nevertheless it is still held by the Roman Church, despitethe
removal of its medieval philosophical underpinning by later
philosophers. The Church of England has been ambivalent. Henry
VIII (1491-1547) burned Lutherans for questioning the doctrine.
On the other hand Article 28 of the 39 Articles, agreed in 1562,
states that transubstantiation cannot be proved by holy writ
and is repugnant to the plain words of scripture. There is no
explanation in Article 28 (or any of the others) as to what
the words of Jesus do mean.
Incidentally, none of the gospels mentions what was in the
cup offered by Jesus to his followers. Views differ. In early
times a sect known as Aquarians used only water at the Eucharist.
Some Churches use water mixed with wine. Others use wine only.
At one time those who used wine adopted the practice of warming
it to blood temperature.
…Christ; Who suffered for our salvation:....
The Creed of St Athanasius
Christianity teaches that mankind was reconciled to God through
the sacrificial death of Christ. The idea is based on God's known requirement for sacrifices in the Old Testament, and a
number of New Testament passages*.
It also looks like a primitive "aversion sacrifice".
Jesus" blood keeps the Devil at bay, just as the blood
of the paschal lamb kept the angel of death at bay. Unfortunately
the exact mechanism for the Atonement has never been explained.
As one authority on Christian doctrine says:
There is no authoritative decision or consensus of teaching
which commits the Church to any theory about the details of
the method of the Atonement*
The prevailing view among the Church Fathers, and the view
generally accepted for 1,000 years, was that the sacrifice was
a ransom paid to Satan. St Anselm in the eleventh century saw
it as a ransom paid not to Satan but to God, and in time this
became the predominant view. Article 31 of the 39 Articles sees
it as a propitiation and satisfaction but avoids mentioning
to whom it was paid. In recent years many have seen Jesus"
death not as a propitiatory sacrifice, but merely as an example
A traditional teaching is that Masses constitute further propitiatory
sacrifices for mankind, but such ideas were rejected by Protestants
and by the Church of England. They are described in Article
31 of the 39 Articles as blasphemous fables and dangerous deceits.
I believe in .... The Communion of Saints....
The Apostles" Creed
The Invocation of the Saints is the asking of saints in Heaven
for their intervention in worldly affairs. There is no mention
of this practice in the Bible and no reference to it in Christian
writings until the third century. The Invocation of the Saints
was common throughout Christendom by the fourth century. Many
Christians prayed to the saints just as they had previously
prayed to their heathen gods. In fact in many cases Christian
saints were their old heathen gods with a veneer of
To counter charges of polytheism, the Church insisted that
saints had no power themselves, they were merely mediators between
God and man (as Jesus had been during the early years). Theologians
disagreed as to how this might work. The Council of Trent was
careful not to be specific. It declared that the Invocation
of the Saints was good and useful, that all benefits come from
God through the mediation of Jesus Christ, and that all superstition
was to be put down (Session 25 ).
The Church of England rejected the Invocation of the Saints
as a fond (i.e. foolish) thing vainly invented (Article 22 of
the 39 Articles). The Eastern Churches on the other hand permit
the invocation not only of saints but also of the dead , an
apparent remnant of ancient ancestor worship.
...born of the Virgin Mary....
The Apostles" Creed
The biblical Mary was not particularly notable, especially
if we discount the nativity stories as later additions. In the
Bible there is no hint of her great merit, or of her being sinless.
She is never given any title whatsoever. The only time she is
mentioned by the Mark author is when Jesus rebuffs her.
Jesus rejected her along with the rest of his human family.
He appeared to hundreds after his resurrection, including a
number of women followers, but not to his mother. He consistently
taught that people should hate their mothers along with other
members of their family. Biblical authors did not even bother
to ensure consistency in naming Mary (12 Miriams, 7 Marias ),
and the author of John does not even bother to mention her by
name. Other early Christian writers often failed to mention
her at all*. Those that
did were not necessarily complimentary. For example here are
the views of some of the most important authorities in early
Christianity, summarised by a leading authority on her:
Irenaeus of Lyons finds fault with her "untimely haste"
at Cana, and accepts that Christ did reprove her. Tertullian
questions whether she believed in him at all. Origen thinks
that though she did, her faith wavered at the end. John Chrysostom
accuses her of trying to domineer and to "make herself
illustrious through her Son"*.
She is far from the modern idea of a living intercessor with
God, and even further from her current role of "Queen of
Heaven". How did she attain her present majestic, semi-divine,
heights? We consider four doctrines concerning the Virgin Mary:
This is the doctrine that the Virgin Mary was free from Original
Sin from the moment of her conception. There is no hint of it
in the Bible (the question could not arise until St Augustine
had proposed the idea of Original Sin). When the question did
arise all authorities agreed. Everyone except Jesus had been
born in sin because his or her parents had indulged in sexual
intercourse. St Anselm stated the orthodox view in the eleventh
The very virgin from whom His manhood was taken was conceived
in iniquities, and in sins did her mother conceive her; and
with original sin was she born*
Clearly it would not do to have a sinful woman giving birth
to Jesus, so the theory arose that Mary was cleansed of her
Original Sin after her own conception but before her birth.
This was the line approved by Innocent III (pope 1198-1216)
and accepted by all scholars of the thirteenth century. But
popular sentiment was against such subtleties. The common people
wanted a virgin who had always been without sin, an idea that
had been condemned by St Bernard as a presumptuous novelty in
the twelfth century.
Franciscan John Duns Scotus in the fourteenth century became
the first theologian of note to support the idea of Mary's sinless
conception. St Thomas Aquinas opposed his view*.
As usual the Franciscans supported Duns Scotus, and the Dominicans,
Aquinas. Arguments rumbled on for centuries, both sides producing
visionaries to whom the Virgin had appeared in person either
to confirm or deny the doctrine according to the visionaries"
pre-existing views (Franciscans, yes; Dominicans, no). St Thomas
himself appeared in at least one vision to explain that he had
not meant what he had written on the subject, and the Franciscans
cited this as evidence*.
To the Medieval mind, the issue was associated with mary lactating.
Bodily fluids reinforced her ordinary humanity. This seems to
have been one reason why Dominicans experienced visions confirming
the virgin's predeliction for providing vast quantities of breast
In time the sinlessness controversy died down. mary's sinlessness
became more and more popular as Marian devotion developed. Eventually
the time came to reverse the traditional line, even though there
was no evidence, biblical or otherwise, concerning Mary's sinlessness.
The doctrine of Mary's Immaculate Conception was defined as
a dogma of the Roman Catholic Church by Pope Pius IX in Ineffabilis
deus issued in 1854. He cited two biblical passages in
support of the doctrine, both of which contained serious (and
already known) errors of translation*.
The Eastern Churches reject the Immaculate Conception, as they
reject the doctrine of Original Sin. The Anglican Church also
rejects it. The heading to Article 15 of the 39 Articles states
that Christ alone was without sin. Mary is not mentioned in
the Article, presumably because the doctrine of her Immaculate
Conception was not sufficiently well established in 1562 to
call for specific repudiation.
The biblical evidence for Mary's virginity is dealt with
in detail later (page 238). To summarise:
the evidence that she was a virgin before the birth of Jesus
is suspicious and contradictory; the evidence that she remained
a virgin afterwards is non-existent.
The original impetus for the idea of a Virgin Birth seems to
have been a mistranslation in the Septuagint, but the seed found
fertile soil in the Hellenic world. Middle Eastern virgin goddesses
were common. Among the best known were Hera (Juno), Hestia,
Core (Persephone ), Artemis, and Aphrodite (Venus) the counterpart
of many Middle Eastern virgin goddesses: Ashera, the
consort of El; Ashtaroth; Ishtar; the Sumerian
Inana; the Phoenician Astarte; the Canaanite
Anath. They all seem to have provided ready prototypes
for the Virgin Mary. Sometimes these virgins gave birth. The
goddess Hera, the Queen of Heaven, for example gave parthenogenic
birth to Typhaon and Aries, and according to some also to Hephæstus*.
She regularly regained her virginity*.
Again the goddess Pallas Athene was styled Parthenos
(virgin) but also Meter (Mother)*.
And again, the virgin Core was said to have given birth to Aion*.
Famous men were credited not only with having been fathered
by gods, but sometimes with having been born of virgins. According
to legend, Plato was fathered by the god Apollo on Perictione,
her husband having been instructed by the god not to consummate
his marriage*. Simon
Magus, one of the false prophets mentioned in the New Testament,
claimed that his mother was a virgin*.
births were regarded in the ancient world as only moderately
impressive. One reason for this was the widespread belief in
parthenogenesis and even the spontaneous creation of life. Also,
impregnation was held to be possible by a number of methods
that now seem questionable. The wind was thought to be able
to impregnate unwary females , and all sorts of things found
their way into women's wombs. The Buddha was supposed to have
entered his mother's womb in the form of a white elephant while
she slept. Happily it was not a full sized elephant. In Greek
mythology Perseus was supposedly born to Danaë after Zeus
had seduced her in the form of a shower of gold. Zeus often
adopted the form of birds to accomplish copulation, a theme
familiar from the legend of Leda and the swan. He adopted the
same form to couple with Nemesis , an eagle for Ægina
, a quail for Leto , an eagle again for Asteria , a cuckoo on
one occasion for Hera , and a pigeon for the nymph Phthia. It
is possibly no coincidence therefore that the agent responsible
for Mary's impregnation, the Holy Ghost, is traditionally represented
in Christian art as another bird. The Holy Ghost is usually
represented as a dove, a bird associated with love in ancient
Many early Christians rejected the story of the Virgin Birth.
Certainly most Ebionites did. So did Cerinthus. The first mention
of Mary retaining her virginity after the birth of Jesus occurs
in the Book of Jame s (see page
39 ), which dates from the middle of the second century.
The idea of perpetual virginity was discounted by fourth century
churchmen such as Helvidius, Jovinian and Bonosus, Bishop of
Naïssus. It seems to have become popular in the fifth century,
helped along by the opinions of St Jerome. Jerome was so keen
on the benefits of virginity that he tried to make a case for
the perpetual virginity not only of Mary, but of Joseph as well
, contradicting the Book of James. Jewish writings
of course failed to support the Virgin Birth, and for centuries
Christian authorities would sequester and burn Jewish books
explicitly for this reason.
Before leaving the subject of Mary's virginity, it is
worth considering why it should have acquired such importance.
One obvious answer is that it was developed to account for the
fact that Mary became pregnant before she was married. Even
if Joseph was not the father, there is at least one other earthly
candidate, for early Christians were taunted with the charge
that Jesus was the son of a Roman soldier called Pantheras*.
Despite the efforts of the Church, there has been a continuing
underground tradition that Jesus" parents were less than
perfect. It is interesting that even when the Koran was written
it was still thought necessary to deny that Jesus" father
was a whore-monger or his mother a harlot (Koran 19:28 ).
Whatever the truth, there was another practical reason for
Mary's virginity being considered so important. This was
the attitude of the early Church Fathers to sex. The men who
controlled the Church in its formative years had singular ideas
about sex. They regarded virginity as the most suitable state
for a devout Christian, and sexual intercourse as a regrettable
but necessary evil. Also, Christianity in its early years benefited
financially from its support for lifelong virginity. Women inherited
equally with men under Roman law, and it became customary for
powerful families to bring up their sons in the old religion
and their daughters in the new one. If these daughters could
be induced to accept that virginity was a particularly holy
and desirable state, then the church stood to grow rich by inheriting
their worldly goods when they eventually died without heirs.
This seems to have been one of the principal sources of finance
for the early Church.
Whatever the reasons for the development of the doctrine, liberal
churchmen have rejected it. It is quite likely that the majority
of Anglican clergymen no longer believe in it. Article 2 of
the 39 Articles affirms the Virgin Birth but makes no mention
of Mary's perpetual virginity. The Roman Church has fairly
consistently followed St Jerome's view. Mary's perpetual
virginity was declared a dogma of the Roman Church by Pope Martin
I at the First Lateran Council in 649 but fewer and fewer Roman
Catholics now accept it, and the Second Vatican Council conspicuously
refrained from proclaiming it to be an article of faith in 1964.
To the Orthodox Church Mary is still "Ever-Virgin"
(Aeiparthenos) , as she has been since 553*.
The question as to whether Mary was the mother of God did not
arise until it became established that Jesus had been God incarnate.
If Jesus was God, then it seemed to follow that Mary was the
mother of God. Referring to Mary, Origen had first used the
expression Theotokos, meaning "God-Bearer"
in the third century. Many Christians rejected the idea, along
with the idea that Jesus was truly God. But others were attached
to the idea of a Mother goddess.
A Church Council was called at Ephesus (431), the centre of
worship of the Mother Goddess Artemis (Diana). After the usual
rounds of argument among Church leaders (see page 126) the title
Theotokos was accepted by the council, and Artemis's great city became Mary's great city instead.
As so often the council's decision caused a schism. It
was reconsidered and confirmed by another council at Chalcedon
(in 451) , once again followed by schism.
There is no suggestion in the Bible and no evidence anywhere
else that Mary's life ended in any way other than death.
In early centuries there was no doubt about it: Mary had died
like other human beings. St Augustine mentioned her death explicitly:
"Mary, born of Adam, died because of sin"*.
For almost 2,000 years Christian scholars have disputed the
site of her grave. Some have favoured Jerusalem, others Ephesus.
But there also arose a story that she had fallen asleep in some
secret location, and was still hibernating in some hidden corner.
This idea, that Mary had not died, seems to have arisen in the
fourth century. The earliest, apocryphal, sources date from
then. In any case the story became popular in the East and from
it developed the doctrine of Mary's Dormition, literally
"Mary's falling asleep".
Late in the sixth century the Feast of the Dormition arrived
in the West. Discarding the apocryphal sources, the real argument
for Mary's avoidance of death appears to have been based
on St Augustine's link between sex, sin and death. If Mary
had been free of the taint of sex and sin, she would not have
needed to die, because death is caused by sin. Slowly the story
changed so that she was not asleep on Earth. Rather, she had
ascended bodily into Heaven. Thus by the ninth century the Dormition
was changing into the Assumption.
Protestants originally rejected the Assumption, but some have
changed their minds. The feast of the Assumption was dropped
from the Book of Common Prayer in 1549 but is observed locally
by some Anglicans. That Mary ascended, body and soul into Heaven
was defined as dogma for the Roman Church by Pius XII in his
bull Munificentissimus deus in 1950. In the bull he
referred to eighth century sources, but not the apocryphal writings
on which they were based. His Holiness also omitted to explain
how this dogma can be squared with the hundreds of miracle-working
bones from Mary's body, preserved in church reliquaries
The Eastern Churches still refer to the Dormition, but the
doctrine has never been well defined, and many Orthodox Christians
now believe in Mary's bodily Assumption into Heaven, though
some promptly stopped believing in it when the Roman Church
declared it to be dogma in 1950*.
Many nonconformist sects regard the Assumption as an invention
of the Roman Church formulated to support the cult of the Virgin.
…daily the trained parrot in the pulpit gravely delivers
himself of these ironies, which he has acquired second-hand
and adopted without examination, to a trained congregation
which accepts them without examination....
Mark Twain (1835-1910), Thoughts of God
The examples given by no means exhaust the list of Christian
doctrine that lack firm foundations. There is no account in
scripture of Confirmation , nor ritual Anointing (Unction) of
the Sick , nor the Fall of the evil angels , nor of Purgatory,
nor of Limbo*, nor even
of such a central doctrine as divine grace (which is concerned
with the purported favour of God for humankind, especially in
regard to salvation). As one authority on the subject says:
"There is no complete system of doctrine on the subject
of grace laid down by any authoritative utterance of the whole
Church or by an entire consensus of representative teachers"*.
The list of unreliable doctrines could go on for pages. The
shortage of reliable evidence for most doctrines is reflected
by the differing views of the Eastern, Roman, Anglican and other
Churches, all of which purport to teach the true word of God.
Even within the Roman Church the traditional Thomist and Scotist
schools differ on so many points of doctrine that they might
almost be regarded as different religions.
Often there is no reliable support for doctrine at all. Early
writers frequently failed to mention important doctrines, apparently
because they were unaware of them. Sometimes they supported
doctrines that are now considered heretical and rejected ones
that are now considered orthodox. Often they contradicted one
The general pattern in the first few centuries is that some
Christians adopt a popular pagan theme. It gains popularity
and theologians refine it so that it can be accommodated into
the body of acceptable Church doctrine. If possible, some sort
of biblical justification is found for it, and if not, a suitable
piece of text is inserted into the Bible. A Church Council eventually
endorses it by a majority vote, and anathematises anyone who
denies it. Those who do continue to deny it are condemned as
heretics and persecuted into submission or extinction.
It is difficult to find any substantial doctrine that is clearly
formulated, has explicit biblical support, and is free of the
charge of having been borrowed from contemporary pagan religions.
If consistency of teaching is sought as well, then the task
appears impossible: not a single doctrine qualifies. An increasing
number of Church scholars accept that almost all mainstream
Christian doctrine was unknown to the biblical Jesus. It was
developed after his death, largely borrowed from other religions,
and subject to amendment in later centuries, often looking suspiciously
as though it were determined by popular pressure and political