How Old Are Christian Doctrines?


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    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 been abandoned.


    The Creeds

    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 (Eusebius). 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. Amen.

    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 and content.

    We will now look at some of the most widely accepted Christian doctrines, concentrating on those prescribed by the principal creeds.


    The Incarnation

    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 them.

    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:

    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
    4. 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.
    5. 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 schism.
    6. 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 page 126).

    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 (or Holy Spirit)

    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 call it*.

    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.


    The Trinity

    So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God.
    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.

    The 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.

    In 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

    The 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 not.


    Jesus Visiting Hell ("The Harrowing Of Hell")

    He descended into Hell.
    The Apostles" Creed

    It 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).

    The 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' Creed.

    The Harrowing of Hell is particularly popular in Christian art - perhaps precisely because it is substantiated. The entrance of Hell is generally shown as the mouth of a huge demonic monster.


    Desent to Hell c1470 Francais 117 BnF




    The Resurrection

    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.

    The gospels relate stories not only of Jesus' resurrection, but also the resurrection of some dead citizens of Jerusalem. Christians look forward to their own bodily resurrection on the Day of Judgement.

    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 Resurrection, depicted in MS. Douce 134 f 050v

    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.


    Original Sin

    For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.
    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 have sinned:

    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 Church.



    This is my body which is given for you:....
    Luke 22:19

    At the Last Supper Jesus is represented as having told his disciples that the bread was his body and the drink was his blood.

    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.

    The 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.


    The Atonement

    …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 to mankind.

    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.


    Invocation of the Saints

    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 Christianity.

    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.


    The Virgin Mary

    ...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:


    Mary's Immaculate Conception

    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 century:

    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.

    The 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 milk.

    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.


    Mary's Virginity

    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*.

    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 times.

    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*.


    Mary, Mother of God

    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.


    Mary's Dormition and Assumption

    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 around Europe.

    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.


    Other Doctrines

    …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 another.

    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 expediency.




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    §. Even Western theologians were not always fully agreed on the nature of Limbo. St Augustine's teaching was that unbaptised infants burned for all eternity. St Thomas Aquinas said they enjoyed “natural happiness”. According to Pope Pius X “they do not enjoy God, but they do not suffer either”. At the time of writing Pope Benedict XXVI has tentatively admitted that Limbo might not exist after all, so it is still a mystery where the souls of those dead babies go.

    §. For some of the creeds adopted and discarded by the early Church see Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, pp 247-8.

    §. The Creed adopted at the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon may have been used earlier at the First Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in AD 381, but this is doubtful. Nevertheless, it is sometimes called the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed.

    §. Article 8 of the 39 Anglican Articles of Religion.

    §. The Council held at Ephesus in 449 is often called the Robber Council, but it was no less flawed through bias or duress than many other councils.

    §. Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration, 31.5-8.

    §. For the views of various Church Fathers, see Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, pp 258-263.

    §. Tampering with the Creed would have been heretical (by the decree of ecumenical councils) even if the Eastern Churches had agreed with the underlying change of doctrine, which in fact they did not. To them unilateral action by the Western Church constituted a sin against the unity of Christendom or "moral fratricide". Furthermore, according to Eastern authorities the theological position of the Western Church is dangerous and heretical (the heresy lying somewhere between semi-Sabellianism and ditheism). Ware, The Orthodox Church, pp 58-9, 67, 236, 218-223.

    §. The three Fates were Klotho, Lachesis and Atropos. Their Greek name Moirai means "part". Homer speaks of them as a single goddess. [Iliad 16.334, refers to "Moira Krataia".] Other triads mentioned are the Graia (Pemphredo, Enyo and Deino); the Gorgons (Sthenno, Euryale and Medousa) {TGotG, p49}; the Furies, or Erinyes, or Maniai or Eumenides (Allekto, Tisiphone and Megaira); the Horai (Eunomia, Dike and Eirene) ; and the Charities or Graces (Aglaia, Euphrosyne and Thalia) Hesiod Theogeny 905 + TGotG pp 99-100}.

    §. Pausanias, Periegeta, 2.2.8.

    §. St Theophilus, Ad. Autol. 1:7, 2:15, 18.

    §. There had been a degree of confusion amongst the faithful regarding God's Son, God's Word, God's Spirit and God's Wisdom. For some Christians, God's Son was an inherent manifestation of God's Word, and God's Spirit was an inherent manifestation of God's Wisdom; but others, like Tertullian, equated God's Wisdom with God's Word. The Council of Sardica in 343 held that God's Son is also his Word, Wisdom and Power. According to the Arians, the Son had not had a human soul, but had had the Word instead.

    §. St Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, 72 mentions the passage. He thought that its absence from some copies of the scripture was due to Jews suppressing it. In fact, its presence in other copies was a Christian imposture. St Irenaeus of Lyons also seems to have believed the passage to be genuine, though he cited it in several different forms: Adversus Omnes Haereses, III, xx 4; IV, xxii, 1; IV, xxxiii, 1, 12; and V, xxxi, 1.

    §. Resurrection is referred to unambiguously only in Daniel 12:2-3 (c. 164 BC ) and Isaiah 26:19 (Isaiah 24-27 being an acknowledged late apocalyptic insertion) {TAotB p182}. Hints of other ideas may be found e.g. Ezekiel 37:12-14 and 1 Samuel 28:7-20.

    §. Some early Christians, such as the Docetes, denied that Christ had died on the cross, and consequently denied the doctrine of the resurrection too. Ignatius, Epistle to the Magnesians 9, mentions them (or at least some of them). Clement of Rome., in his letter to the Corinthians 23-7, goes to great lengths to convince his readers that there are no grounds for doubting the resurrection, which suggests that others rejected it too, cf. Paul's efforts to the same end, 1 Corinthians 15. Polycarp was also exercised by those (he described them as first-begotten sons of Satan) who asserted that there was no such thing as resurrection or judgement, Epistle to the Philippians 7.

    §. Romans 5:12, cf. 1 Corinthians 15:21-22 and James 1:15.

    §. St Augustine of Hippo, De magifro (The Teacher), 2.3.381.

    §. Augustine's ideas were not entirely original and may for example be found in the writings of Cyprian (d. 258). See Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, p 176.

    §. See for example Mark 10:45, 1 Corinthians 15:3 and Hebrews 9:19-28.

    §. Stone, Outlines of Christian Doctrine, p 90.

    §. Clement of Rome., Polycarp and Hermas for example all failed to mention Mary.

    §. Ashe, The Virgin, p 129.

    §. St Anselm, Cur Deus Homo, 2, 16.

    §. Aquinas said that Mary was sanctified in the womb, but only after "animation", Summa Theologiae III, q. 27, a 1. Animation for female foetuses took place 80 days after conception according to medieval theory.

    §. Bernadine of Busti, Mariale, (1588 edition, vol. 3), Sermon 7 on the Conception.

    §. The two critical mistranslations, both from the Vulgate, are "she shall crush thy head" in Genesis 3:15, and "full of grace" in Luke 1:28. Both are dealt with in more detail elsewhere on this website.

    §. Typhaon: Homer, Hymnus in Apollinem 309
    Aries: Ovid, Fasti 5.299
    Hephæstus: Hesiod, Theogonia, 928.

    §. Hera regained her virginity each year in the spring of Kanathos, near Argos. Pausanias, Periegeta, 2.38.2.

    §. Pausanias, Periegeta, 5.3.2 and Euripides, Heraclidæ 771 {TGotG, p123}.

    §. Epiphanius, Panarion, 51, 22, 3-11, cited by Hugo Rahner, Greek Myths and Christian Mystery ( London, 1963), p 138.

    §. Origen, Contra Celsum, 1:37. Essentially the same legend was recorded by Diogenes Lærtius Lives of the Philosophers, 3, 1, 2. Diogenes cited several other sources.

    §. Clement of Alexandria, Recognitiones I, 2, 14, cited by E. D. Nourry (Saint Yves d"Alveydre), Les Vierges-Mères et les Naissances Miraculeuses (Paris, 1908), p 258.

    §. Origen, Contra Celsum, 1:28-32. The relevant accusation was that: "Mary was turned out by her husband, a carpenter by profession, after she had been convicted of unfaithfulness. Cast off by her spouse, and wandering about in disgrace, in obscurity she gave birth to Jesus by a certain soldier Pantheras.". (Different accounts give slightly different versions of the name.) A detailed exposition of this and other supporting independent sources mentioning Pantheras is given by Rabbi Goldstein, Jesus in Jewish Tradition, Macmillan (New York), pp 35-9.

    §. Mary was declared to be Aeiparthenos by the General Council held at Constantinople in AD 553.

    §. Enarratio in Psalmum 34, 3; quoted by Jean Galot, "Le Mystère de l"Assomption" in Hubert Manoir de Juaye (ed.), Maria, p 196.

    §. Ware, The Orthodox Church, p 264.

    §. Limbo has only ever been mentioned in one papal document, the bull Auctorem fidei issued in 1794.

    §. Outlines of Christian Dogma, p 223.


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