Is There Such A Thing As Orthodox Christianity?


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The Concept of Orthodoxy
Origin of the Priesthood
Maintaining Deceptions
Suppress Facts
Selecting Sources
Fabricating Records
Retrospective Prophesy
Ambiguous Authorities
Ignore Injunctions
Invent, Amend and Discard
Manipulate Language
Case Studies
Re-branding a Sky-God
Making One God out of Many
How Mary keeps her Virginity
Fabricating the Nativity Story
Managing Inconvenient Texts
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Rational Explanations
Religion in General
Christianity in Particular
Divine Human Beings
Ease of Creating Religions
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  • Church Law and Justice
  • Exemption from the Law
  • Unofficial Exemption
  • Financial Privileges
  • Control Over Education
  • Human Rights
  • Freedom of Belief
  • Religious Toleration
  • Freedom of Expression
  • Freedom of Enjoyment
  • Attitudes to Sex
  • Celibacy
  • Sex Within Marriage
  • Sex Outside Marriage
  • Incest
  • Rape
  • Homosexuality
  • Transvestism
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  • Ancient Times
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  • Sixteenth Century
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  • Medical Records Compared
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  • The Classical World
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  • Possible Explanations
    Summing up
    Marketing Religion
    Marketing Christianity
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    Christian Discrimination
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    Orthodoxy is my doxy; heterodoxy is another man's doxy.
    Bishop William Warburton (1698-1779)


    A famous fifth century definition of the one true Christian faith is that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all1. So which is this true faith? Does any faith satisfy the definition? Is there a true one? And how can we tell? Is it the biggest sect, or the one that sticks most closely to biblical teachings, or the one that most resembles the early Church? How can we tell? Many Churches see themselves as representing the one true faith, standing like the trunk of a huge ancient tree, solid, straight and ancient, while other sects have branched off, wispy and insubstantial. They see themselves as different from all the others. For non-Christians, a bramble bush might be a better analogy for the Christian Church. There is not one main stem to this bush, but a number of stems. Some of the oldest stems have died off, and most of the vigorous growth is in the secondary and tertiary offshoots. The bush bears the marks of some forceful pruning over the years, yet it still lacks any main trunk and remains a dense tangle.

    Typically, what starts out as a single movement divides into an ever-increasing number of related movements. This phenomenon of division is generally known as schism, from the Greek word schisma denoting a split, rent or cleft. Each schismatic faction believes itself to hold the orthodox line. The word orthodox is of Greek origin and means simply right opinion. Each schismatic group is convinced that it holds the right opinion, and is thus orthodox, representing in its own mind the whole of the true Christian Church, other factions having placed themselves outside it through their heterodox beliefs. It is for this reason that many sects claimed to be catholic (i.e. whole or comprehensive). The word catholic is derived from the Greek word katholikos meaning universal. The Anglican Church, the Roman Church and the Eastern Churches all claim to be catholic. Anglicans and many Protestants do not regard their own Churches as dating from the Reformation. They see them as dating back to the earliest Church, although temporarily misled by the Bishop of Rome. As Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury put it : "When an Anglican is asked “where was your Church before the Reformation?”, his best answer is to put the counter question “Where was your face before you washed it?” ".

    From the vantage point of any one sect, all others have fallen into error, and their adherents are thus likely to be branded as heretics. In theory a heretical sect has broken away from its parent Church (a fallen branch), while a schismatic sect is still part of the tree (a split trunk). In practice the distinction between schism and heresy is largely political. If the split can be healed by diplomacy, then it is called a schism. But if one side thinks it can eliminate the other by force, then accusations of heresy tend to arise. Wherever possible the branch is chopped off and burned.

    Schisms and heresies arise in most religions. The Pharisees, Sadducees and Samaritans mentioned in the New Testament were heretical Jewish sects from the point of view of mainstream Judaism. So were other groups*, and so was Christianity when it started to diverge from its Jewish roots. Islam is sometimes regarded as a schismatic offshoot of both Judaism and Christianity. Soon after the death of Mohammed, Islam split into two main groups, the Shi"ites and the Sunni. Soon these too spawned new schismatic sub-sects. In the remainder of this section we will review some of the schisms within Christianity.



    The Early Centuries

    Jesus" followers divided into a number of opposing factions almost immediately after his death. As we have already seen (pages 81ff), the New Testament mentions a number of these factions, and the Church Fathers and historians tell us of others. The Nazarenes — followers of Jesus who continued within mainstream Judaism — almost certainly represented the nearest approximation to Jesus" own teachings, but this provided no guarantee of supremacy within the wider fellowship. While the Nazarenes continued quietly in Jerusalem, various Gnostic sects flourished in Syria, and St Paul's faction grew fast in the Hellenic world. All suffered further sub-schisms. The Nazarenes for example had problems when Jesus" brother James was executed. As the Church historian Eusebius tells us:

    After James the Just had suffered martyrdom like the Lord and for the same reason Symeon .... was appointed bishop.... But Thebuthis, because he was not made bishop, began secretly to corrupt her [the Church] from the seven sects among the people to which he himself belonged: from which came Simon (whence the Simonians), and Cleobius (whence the Cleobians), and Dositheus (whence the Dositheans), and Gorthaeus (whence the Goratheni), and Masbotheus (whence the Masbothæans). Springing from these the Menandrianists, Marcionists, Carpocratians, Valentinians, Basilidians, and Saturnilians, every man introducing his own opinions in his own particular way ...*

    Gnostics seem never to have been a single sect, but a collection of disparate sects, each with its own distinctive ideas, and liable to generate new sub-schisms. Pauline Christians were also subject to sub-schism. Already in his lifetime Paul had cause to reprove Christians in Corinth for dividing into sects. Quarrelling Christians there were claiming to follow different leaders: some St Paul, some Cephas i.e. St Peter, some Apollos, and some Christ (1 Corinthians 1:10-12). Other first century schismatics include the Cerinthians and Nicolaitans. The Cerinthians, like many others, held that Jesus was born of Mary and Joseph, and that Christ descended on him at his baptism in the form of a dove (cf. Mark 1:10-12).

    Pauline Christians are now generally considered to represent the orthodox line, but Paul had many difficulties in dealing with others who were trying to proselytise gentiles, and who held views other than his. On occasion Paul himself gave rise to heterodox ideas. His statement that " ... if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law" (Galatians 5:18) was interpreted as meaning that the ancient laws no longer held for Christians and there was therefore no longer any reason for Christians to control their sexual impulses. Sexual licence became a major problem, and Paul had to tell his followers to stop it*. Similar ideas were to resurface in Europe in the sixteenth century when sexual licence again became a popular Christian theme, and the description Antinomian was coined for those who enjoyed themselves more than was thought proper by their Christian neighbours.

    In the first and second centuries orthodoxy embraced millenarianism. Millenarians interpreted a biblical passage (Revelation 20:2-4) as meaning that Christ would reign for 1000 years while the Devil was incarcerated. This view has periodically come back into favour, generally with the assumption, based on other New Testament passages, that the end of the world and beginning of Christ's reign were imminent. Such ideas became popular again in the years up to AD 1000, and yet again in the years up to 2000. Millenarianism was adopted by the Anabaptists and others in the seventeenth century and is still taught by Mormons, Irvingites, Adventists, the Plymouth Brethren, and many other denominations.

    The Marcionites were followers of Marcion of Sinope who assembled various writings into the earliest version of the New Testament. Marcion, like many other early Christians, believed that Jesus had suddenly appeared in the world as an adult. He and his followers worshipped the god of love, adopted some Gnostic ideas, and appointed women priests and bishops, there being no apparent reason why they should not do so. At the time they were regarded as more or less orthodox except that they received a little too much guidance from the Holy Spirit for their neighbours" tastes. Their gift of prophecy tended to subvert the authority that priests were then establishing for themselves.

    Montanists were another Gnostic sect. They followed Montanus, a Phrygian, who believed that he had special divine knowledge not given to the apostles. They sought, as many sects have done since, to return to the beliefs and practices of the primitive Church. For example, they were Quartodecimans, meaning that they kept Easter on the 14th day of the Jewish month of Nisan, as the entire Asian diocese had done*. A famous Church Father, Tertullian, became a Montanist around AD 207. Montanists were millenarians and practised speaking in tongues, a facility that is still claimed by Pentecostalist groups. Their keenness on the twin joys of celibacy and martyrdom, along with a willingness of other Christians to oblige them in respect of the latter, ensured their disappearance in the sixth century.

    Quintilians were a sub-sect of Montanists, founded by a priestess Quintilia. They used bread and cheese at the Eucharist and also allowed women priests and bishops. Another schismatic sect was the Alogians, who declined to identify Christ as the Word referred to at the beginning of the John gospel. This was apparently a reaction to Montanists, who were keen to identify the two as being the same, as modern theologians do.

    Sabellians were followers of Sabellius, a Libyan priest. They were Unitarians, holding that Father, Son, and Spirit represented different states (or modes or aspects) of a single god. In later centuries the Eastern Churches were to accuse the Roman Church of Sabellianism and would excommunicate popes for supporting this heresy*. Since the time of Jesus there had been a line of followers who believed him to have been merely human, not divine. This view seems to have come to be regarded as heretical towards the end of the second century*. Yet there would still be bishops holding these views within the mainstream Church for many years to come, especially those whose sees fell within the patriarchy of Antioch. Eventually, late in 268, a Bishop of Antioch, Paul of Samosata, was removed by the secular power for holding that Jesus was not divine. From then on, bishops had to agree to the "orthodox" line that Jesus had been divine. Those, like Priscillian, who deviated from the newly established orthodoxy, claiming for example that Jesus was merely an exalted prophet, could expect torture and death.

    It was also around this time that Adoptionism first became unacceptable. As we have already seen (page 80), the story that Jesus was not born as the son of God, but had been adopted as a son of God, is related in the earliest gospel (the Mark gospel). The early Christians who preferred this account to the ones developed later were known as Adoptionists. Adoptionism became ever less unacceptable as the doctrine of the Incarnation was developed. The Church Father Origen was posthumously accused of Adoptionism. This early doctrine was never successfully suppressed. In the eighth century at least two Spanish bishops, Elipandus of Toledo and Felix of Urgel, were still Adoptionists. The same Adoptionist "heresy" has resurfaced repeatedly throughout the history of Christianity.

    The third century Novatians were followers of Novatian, a Roman presbyter. Their sole distinguishing feature was that , in obedience to the Bible (Hebrews 6:4-6) they rejected the re-admission of those who had lapsed into paganism.

    By the fourth century one particular Christian group, calling itself catholic, gained the ascendancy. By various means it gained influence over the Emperor Constantine, and used its influence to crush the opposition. Under the influence of this group the Emperor issued an edict announcing the destruction of other denominations:

    Understand now by this present statute, Novatians, Valentinians, Marcionites, Paulinians, you who are called Cataphrygians ... with what a tissue of lies and vanities, with what destructive and venomous errors, your doctrines are inextricably woven! We give you a warning ... Let none of you presume, from this time forward, to meet in congregations. To prevent this, we command that you be deprived of all the houses in which you have been accustomed to meet ... and that these should be handed over immediately to the catholic church*.

    This was how "orthodoxy" was established and maintained, by imperial edict. Orthodoxy was whatever the Emperor said it was, so various parties vied for the Emperor's ear, hoping to have their views declared as orthodox. Many sects arose and died out through little more than historical accident. The Donatist heresy, for example, began with the election of rival bishops, Cæcilian and Donatus, at Carthage. Imperial preference, obtained by dubious means, having favoured Cæcilian, the followers of Donatus went into schism, setting themselves up as the one true Church. They were distinguished by their zeal, their hatred of their erstwhile colleagues, and their tendency towards further schism. They persisted for over 300 years, disappearing only when Muslims overran that part of Africa.

    Further difficulties were raised by the Arians, followers of Arius , a priest who tried to work out exactly who Christ had been. He held that*:

    • the Father and Son are distinct beings.
    • the Father had created the Son.
    • the Son, though divine, is less than the Father.
    • the Son existed before his appearance in the world, but not from eternity.

    Since there was no single accepted authority to settle such matters, the Emperor Constantine convened a council in 325 to determinethe issue. Christians from around the known world travelled to Nicæa (modern Iznik in Turkey). There they considered the nature of Christ. The Arians said that he had been brought into existence to be the incarnate Word (logos) of God. Their opponents, led by the Archdeacon Athanasius of Alexandria, claimed that this did not go far enough, because it represented Jesus as being a lesser being than God. The matter was settled by Constantine himself. Unbaptised and only half-Christian, he was well accustomed to the idea of men being gods. He had already had his father Constantius deified and probably expected to be deified himself after death. One danger with the Arian line was that it might countenance other men claiming to be sons of God. The other line accepted the Emperor as the prime focus on Earth of divine power. There was only one divine son of God, and he was already safely back in Heaven, leaving the Emperor as his personal representative on Earth. This was obviously more appealing to the Emperor.

    A formula was drawn up that favoured Athanasius's view, and those present were invited to sign. For those who did sign there was an invitation to Constantine's 20th anniversary celebrations. Those who would not sign faced banishment. Most of those present accepted the formula and the party invitation. Some who signed the creed undoubtedly did so for the sake of church unity. Eusebius of Caesarea for example was clearly embarrassed about it. Afterwards some of the signatories reflected on what they had done and realised its significance. Eusebius of Nicomedia, Maris of Chalcedon, and Theognis of Nicæa wrote to Constantine to express their regrets. Eusebius of Nicomedia summed up their position by admitting that they had committed an impious act by subscribing to a blasphemy out of fear of the Emperor. Ironically, Constantine had probably not understood what the controversy had been about anyway. Gibbon neatly sums up Constantine's views on the matter:

    He [Constantine] attributes the origin of the whole controversy to a trifling and subtle question, concerning an incomprehensible point of the law, that was foolishly asked by the bishop [Alexander of Alexandria] and imprudently resolved by the presbyter [Arius]. He laments that the Christian people, who had the same God, the same religion, and the same worship, should be divided by such inconsiderable distinctions; and he seriously recommends to the clergy of Alexandria the example of the Greek philosophers, who could maintain their arguments without losing their temper and assert their freedom without violating their friendship*.

    So it was that Christendom adopted as orthodoxy its doctrine about the divinity of Christ, not through the teachings of Jesus, not from the scriptures, but in line with the wishes of a half-pagan self-interested Emperor. After Arius's banishment, orders were made that Arian writings should be burned, and the death sentence was instituted for anyone found in possession of them. Belief in Arian views gradually declined wherever Arians were persecuted. But the story was not yet over, for Constantine subsequently had second thoughts. Arius was recalled from exile and restored to Imperial favour. A series of Church Councils confirmed the Arian line, and as St Jerome noted the whole world now became Arian*. As Gibbon says of Arius:

    His faith was approved by the Synod of Jerusalem; and the Emperor seemed impatient to repair his injustice by issuing an absolute command that he should be solemnly admitted to the Communion in the cathedral of Constantinople. On the same day, which had been fixed for the triumph of Arius, he expired; and the strange and horrid circumstances of his death might excite a suspicion that the orthodox saints had contributed more efficaciously than by their prayers to deliver the church from the most formidable of her enemies*.

    Arius, and other people that orthodox Christians disliked, died in a particularly ghastly way, their bowels exploding shortly after a private meeting with orthodox christian leaders. The orthodox attributed these killings to God, an explanation that becomes ever less convincing. Once Arius was dead there was little chance of the decision of the Council of Nicæa being formally overturned. Even though St Athanasius, the champion of what is now considered orthodoxy, was condemned as a heretic by no fewer than six separate Church Councils, even though all the principal leaders of the orthodox faction were deposed and exiled, and even though Constantine was baptised in the last moments of his life by an Arian bishop, nevertheless the established doctrine was retained, though the question was not yet closed. In the fourth century alone forty-five Church Councils considrered the question of whether Arius had been right or wrong. Thirteen councils came out against him, fifteen voted in his favour, and seventeen settled for semi-Arians positions.

    When Macedonius, Bishop of Constantinople expressed ideas similar to those of Arius, he was deposed by a council of Constantinople in 360. His followers, Macedonians, retained their semi-Arian beliefs for years to come. The orthodox line was that Jesus Christ was God and from now on it would be acceptable for Christians to pray to a deity other than God the Father. As a leading modern theologian has put it:

    The practice of praying to Christ in the Liturgy, as distinct from praying to God through Christ, appears to have originated among the innovating "orthodox" opponents of Arianism in the fourth century. It slowly spread, against a good deal of opposition, eventually to produce Christocentric piety and theology*.

    Disputes have rumbled on to the present day. For many centuries the Arian form of Christianity flourished in Romania, Bulgaria, Spain, Gaul and Lombardy. As a number of theologians have noted, most Western Christians today unwittingly turn out to be Arian when questioned about their beliefs.

    Questions about the nature of the Son provided endless material for dispute in early times. Another group, the Apollinarians, supposedly fell into error by opposing Arius. They were followers of Apollinaris, Bishop of Laodicea, who opposed Arianism and denied that Jesus had a human soul. They held that the Word (logos) fulfilled that role in Jesus" case. The First Council of Constantinople (381) condemned their views as heretical. Other schismatic groups included the Anthropomorphites, who believed that God had a human form; and the Agnoetae, who denied that God was omniscient. The Collyridians offered bread-cakes to the Virgin Mary, worshipping her as Queen of Heaven*. The Antidicomarianites denied Mary's continued virginity, affirming that she had had sexual intercourse with Joseph after the birth of Jesus }. A Donatist group known as the Circumcellions flourished briefly, propagating violence through North Africa. But they also had a fondness for suicidal martyrdom, and soon died out

    Whichever sect enjoyed the support of the Emperor was the orthodox or catholic faction, and it generally sought to maintain its position by a judicious mix of persecution and politicking. When the Emperor Julian briefly rejected Christianity as the state religion, all sects were suddenly free to persecute each other. Within a year of Julian's accession in 361, numerous Christian sects were at each other's throats. There were no fewer than five bishops in Antioch, each with a mutually hostile following. Since then the number has never again been reduced to one.

    The question of whether or not Jesus had been a man continued to be a major point of contention. Many disputes took place as to whether his nature was that of a human being or a God. Nestorius (died c.451), Bishop of Constantinople, proposed a compromise. He suggested that Christ had two distinct natures, one human and one divine, and that Mary was the mother only of his human one. Mary might be Christotokos, the mother of Christ, but not Theotokos, the mother of God. God could not have been a baby two or three months old, he said. God had always existed. To Nestorius it did not make sense to say that a mother could bear a son older than herself. Furthermore he did not like the implication that if Mary was the mother of God then she must have been a goddess. Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria, made an issue of the matter, apparently to further his position in the political power struggle between the patriarchies of Constantinople and Alexandria*. A Church Council was convened at Ephesus in 431, by the emperors Theodosius II and Valentinian III. The council, initially consisting of Cyril's supporters, and under his chairmanship, acclaimed the one person line. On the same day it condemned and deposed Nestorius, the leader of the two person party. When Nestorius's supporters arrived the council was reopened, since Cyril had had no authority to open the earlier session. The decision was now reversed, and Cyril the leader of the one person faction was deposed and excommunicated. Later, more of Nestorius's opponents arrived. The matter was reconsidered. Deals were negotiated to induce various parties to agree: Pelagianism (a doctrine concerning free will) was to be condemned as a heresy to satisfy the Western representatives; Cyprus was to be granted ecclesiastical independence (which it still enjoys today), and the Bishop of Jerusalem was to be promoted to patriarch. Cyril encouraged other representatives to agree with him, providing carrots for their support in the form of lavish bribes, and sticks for dissent in the form of a private army of violent monks that terrorised the city. Cyril held a third session, similar to the first one. But the two sides would not even meet, let alone agree. In the end the council had to be dissolved by the Emperor Theodosius without it ever having reached a consensus. The Emperor arrested the leaders of both sides and put them in prison.

    A few years later Cyril succeeded in bringing the matter before another council, at Chalcedon in 451, which was more pliant. This council condemned Nestorius, and the inevitable schism soon followed. The Church was once again divided, and a separate Nestorian Church was formed. It flourished in Asia, and boasted enough bishops to rival the ones that are now considered orthodox. Nestorians established a patriarchy at Baghdad, and their influence extended far to the East. At one time there was a Nestorian Archbishop of Cambaluc (modern Peking). Ghengis Khan was well disposed to Nestorian Christians and married his sons to Nestorian princesses. The Nestorian Church was subsequently reduced by Islam, and all but wiped out around 1400 by the Asian warlord Timur. Small groups of Nestorians, now known as Assyrian Christians, survived in Persia and Turkey up until World War I, during which their numbers were further reduced.

    Eutyches (c.380-c.456), Archimandrite of Constantinople, held that Jesus had only one nature — a divine nature — after the Incarnation. Eutyches was excommunicated, later reinstated, but then exiled for his beliefs. Nevertheless he attracted many followers. Eventually the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451) decided that Jesus had possessed two natures — one human, one divine. To hold otherwise, as the Eutychians did, was to commit heresy. This meant that many Christians of the time were heretics, since many held that he had been wholly divine. Those who subscribed to Eutyches's view came to be called Monophysites. Alexandria was a major centre for Monophysite beliefs, and the followers of Timothy, the Monophysite Patriarch of Alexandria, came to be regarded as a distinct group known as Timotheans. Alexandrian Monophysites had always retained the Jewish dietary laws and continued to practise circumcision. They have survived in Egypt up to the present time and constitute the Coptic Church, headed by the Patriarch of Alexandria, who is also the nominal head of the Ethiopian (or Abyssinian) Church. Monophysite churches have died out in Nubia, Persia, and what is now the Yemen, but others survive, including the Armenian and Syrian, whose common head is styled the Patriarch of Antioch.

    Another major schism was that of the Pelagians in the early fifth century. They were followers of Pelagius, a Welsh monk who moved to Rome around the beginning of the fifth century. Pelagius maintained that people could take the first steps to salvation without the assistance of divine grace. His followers advocated free will, including the ability to accept or reject the gospel, and denied St Augustine's doctrine of Original Sin. The Augustinian faction employed the usual tools of debate: personal influence, under-the-table deals, and bribery in support of their arguments, and finally won the day by the distribution of 80 Numidian stallions to imperial cavalry officers, whose troops enforced Augustine's version of Christian orthodoxy. Many modern theologians are not at all certain that Pelagius should have lost the argument, and fewer still believe that Augustine should have won it.

    In the seventh century a schism arose over the question of how many "wills" had been possessed by Christ, with his one "person" and two "natures". Monotheletes, supported by Honorius the Bishop of Rome, held that he had possessed only one. They went into schism after the Third Council of Constantinople in 680-681 held that he had had two. The Roman Church was obliged to disown the views of Honorius. So did others. The Maronites of the Lebanon were originally Monothelete Christians, but have been in communion with the Roman Church since 1182 (when a deal was done during the Crusades). They take their name from a Syrian hermit, St Maron, who died in 410.

    An argument sometimes advanced by more innocent believers is that the one true Church has always called itself "orthodox" or has always called itself "catholic", while mere sects were named after their leaders. This of course, is not a helpful criterion, since almost all sects claim to be both orthodox and catholic. It is also noteworthy that the groups now regarded as orthodox and catholic also had names, just like the groups now regarded as schismatic or heretical. Thus the faction from which the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches are both descended was given a dismissive name by the other factions. Members of this sect were called Melkites ("emperor's men") because they allied themselves with the Emperor and depended upon him for their survival. Again, the Eastern Churches refer to Roman Catholics as Azymites, a reference to their "heretical" practice of using unleavened bread at the Eucharist.


    The Great Schism Between East and West

    People who believe absurdities will commit atrocities.
    Voltaire (1694-1778)

    From the fourth century onwards there had been increasing tension between Rome and the other patriarchies. The Church under each of the patriarchies had always been autocephalous, i.e. self-governing and recognising no central authority except the Emperor. This did not entitle patriarchs to change established doctrines and practices.

    From the eighth century the Roman patriarchs (whom we now call popes) adopted a number of innovations in Western Christendom that might seem relatively trivial now but at the time were not acceptable to their fellow patriarchs in the East. The Nicene creed was changed to reflect a new understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit, and unleavened bread was used instead of leavened bread for the Eucharist. The popes also encouraged fasting on Saturday and tried to enforce clerical celibacy. Later they would discover Purgatory, a place unknown to other patriarchs. As successive bishops of Rome became ever more wayward in the eyes of their fellow patriarchs, the more incensed those patriarchs became. Periodically the tension became too great, and one or more of them would accuse a pope of heresy and excommunicate him. He would retaliate by declaring them heretic and excommunicating them. The reasons for their irritation were not only those already mentioned: sometimes the Bishop of Rome was claiming new honours for himself, sometimes he was convoking councils of his own, sometimes he was interfering in the jurisdictions of other patriarchs, sometimes he was using forged documents to prove a point. Generally the quarrel would be patched up and sooner or later the mutual excommunications would be withdrawn.

    By the eleventh century the position was no longer tenable. The Bishop of Rome was claiming exclusive rights to the title of Pope and pressing for primacy over the whole Church, backed up by the forged Donation of Constantine. The Patriarch of Constantinople had had enough, and a serious rift opened up. Attempts at reconciliation failed and in July 1054 anathemas (formal denunciations) were exchanged. The Great Schism between the Eastern Churches and the Western Church is conventionally dated from this time although, as in the previous centuries, relations would continue periodically to warm and chill, and reconciliation was always a possibility. Indeed, at the time the incident was not regarded as a schism, and came to be regarded as one by the Western Church only after 1204. (Rome needed to justify its seizure of Constantinople in that year and did so by retrospectively regarding the exchange of anathemas in 1054 as causing a permanent split in the Church.) The anathemas were eventually withdrawn more than 900 years later, on 7 th December 1965.

    As the power of the Eastern Churches waned, the Roman Church was successful in picking off a number of isolated religious communities. To this day, it has allowed these communities to keep their local customs, including clerical marriage, even though they are in communion with Rome (which means that they recognise, and are recognised by, the Roman Church).


    Later Schisms

    For the majority of English people there are only two religions, Roman Catholic, which is wrong, and the rest, which don"t matter
    Duff Cooper (1890-1954), Old Men Forget

    The Middle Ages saw the rise of all manner of dissident sects. They ranged from Adamists, who insisted on conducting their religious rites in the nude, to groups who travelled from place to place working themselves into religious frenzy by techniques such as dancing, chanting or flagellating each other. A major group was that of the Adventists, who affirmed the imminence of the Second Coming. Despite severe persecution Adventist groups have survived into modern times. They still look forward to the imminent Second Coming. Generally they keep to Jewish practices, such as prohibiting the eating of pork, and keeping the Sabbath day as required by the Ten Commandments, rather than Sunday — hence the epithet "Seventh Day Adventists".

    Adamists or Adamites - a seventeenth century sect reviving antinomian ideas - also known as Edenists
    ( Night Meetings of the Adamites by Francois Morellon la Cave, 1738)

    The corruption and abuses of the Roman Church in the Middle Ages led even its own adherents to question its authority. Peter Waldo of Lyons was originally a conventional Catholic believer who wanted to live like the apostles. He soon attracted followers who came to be known as Waldensians, Waldenses, or Vaudois. He met so much opposition from his own Church that he was effectively driven out. Soon after the movement started around 1170, Waldo was excommunicated, after which he rejected papal authority. Like others after him, he turned to the gospels and based his theology on them. Waldensians were soon advocating a priesthood of all believers and giving away their wealth. They rejected sacraments not sanctioned by the Bible and condemned practices such as the sale of indulgences and the adoration of saints. Persecution followed, and continued for centuries, with unknown thousands killed, and a few survivors taking refuge in ever more remote places. By the late eighteenth depleted survivors had been scattered to the alpine valleys and other remote areas. In the nineteenth century they were assisted financially by Protestants in the UK and USA, and many emigrated to Uruguay and Argentina.

    Other groups split off from the Church, or were rejected from it. The Beghards for example were essentially orthodox except that they used vernacular translations of the Bible. Eventually they were ejected from the Church and came to be known as Lollards. In England John Wycliffe, a leading Oxford scholar, took the Bible as the sole rule of faith and questioned the Roman sacraments. His followers also came to be known as Lollards and were rejected as unorthodox. Wycliffe's ideas spread throughout Europe and took root in Bohemia. In Prague, Jan Hus adopted them, and his teaching attracted an ever-increasing following. In the fifteenth century, Hussites challenged all rites, institutions and customs not sanctioned by the Bible and questioned the Roman Church's practice of not allowing the Communion cup to the laity. Once again the sect was admonished and then rejected and persecuted.

    The rejection of these sects in the twelfth to fifteenth centuries was to prepare the way for much larger schisms within the Western Church at the Reformation. The sixteenth century saw a huge reaction to the corruption and venality of the Roman Church. Orthodoxy was reconsidered, and whole countries defected to new Protestant denominations: Lutheran, Calvinist, and many others. Martin Luther was prepared to admit into worship anything that was not explicitly prohibited by scripture, while John Calvin would admit only that which was expressly allowed by it. Many German states and Scandinavian countries became Lutheran; Holland, Scotland and Huguenot areas of France became Calvinist; while the Anglican Church found a middle ground, purporting to remain Catholic while adopting ever more Protestant ideas. From around the same time, several separate groups arose that are now known as Anabaptists.

    The Roman Church has continued to generate schismatic groups into recent times. For example, the declaration of the dogma of papal infallibility in 1870 was unacceptable to many Roman Catholics. Excommunicated, they formed themselves into the Old Catholic Church, and are now in communion with the Church of England. In 1988 Archbishop Marcel LeFebvre formally split with the rest of the Roman Church when he ordained four new bishops. His intention was to continue the one true Church, which he thought had been abandoned by an excessively liberal papacy. His followers now number hundreds of thousands in 30 countries.

    Each of the new Protestant Churches started generating new schismatic groups almost as soon as they were established. The Anglican Church gave rise to Puritanism and later to Methodism. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was an Anglican priest, who died still regarding himself as an Anglican. Animosity from other Anglicans led to the new Methodist group becoming a separate Church. The Methodist Church, like other schismatic groups, behaved much like the early Christians had, and consequently they were regarded much as the early Christians had been by their fellow citizens. Their love feasts were believed to have been orgies. Their fits and convulsions were advertised as the work of God but believed by others to be evidence of demonic possession. Their habit of luring new believers away from their families caused massive resentment, and they were accused of robbing widows and other vulnerable individuals of their savings, just as the early Church had been. The new breakaway Methodist Church soon went into schism and formed half a dozen major sub-sects, followed by many other even smaller ones. Methodism now boasts over 75 million members worldwide. Another schismatic group, the Baptists, claim an estimated 47 million members in the United States alone.

    Schismatic sects with a strong Calvinist flavour include Congregationalists and Presbyterians. Some are peculiarly attached to specific countries. For example, the Free Church of Scotland was a schismatic sect of the Church of Scotland, seceding from the latter in 1843. It combined with the United Presbyterian Church in 1900 to form the United Free Church of Scotland. In 1929 this joined up again with the Church of Scotland, apart from a small minority who retained the name of United Free Church. Tens of thousands of schismatic sects — far too many to list here — have arisen from the Western Church. New evangelical churches are created virtually every day.

    In the East, the Orthodox Church has also suffered a number of schisms. Before the Great Schism of 1054, there had already been a major schism over the use of icons. Eastern Christendom was riven between those who worshipped icons (iconodules) and those who rejected icons as idols and wanted to destroy them (iconoclasts). Many people were persecuted and killed over this issue.

    Often, schisms arose over matters that seem remarkably trivial to non-Christians. The seventeenth century saw an Eastern schism concerning the number of fingers to be used when making the sign of the cross. Was it two, the ancient practice used by the Russian Orthodox Church, or three, an innovation used by the Greek Church? Men were executed for supporting the wrong side. The schism continues to this day, the smaller party ("The Old Believers") having split again between the Popovtsy (with a priesthood) and the Bezpopovtsy (without a priesthood). There are also extensive disagreements within the Church about the calendar. In particular the date of Easter is still problematical, and some groups have been excommunicated for celebrating it on one day rather than another.

    Of the tens of thousands of Christian sects, virtually all purport to be the one true mystical body of Christ and the sole ark of salvation — the Mother Church in a monogamous relationship with God. None has a claim to orthodoxy that, to a disinterested observer, is noticeably superior to the others. Certainly, size is not a reliable guide. Many of the larger denominations have thin claims to orthodoxy, even by their own criteria. It is clear to non-believers that what is now generally called orthodoxy is really whichever line historically came out on top, often by politicking, threats, deception, brute force, or the whim of an emperor.

    Any objective assessment would assign orthodoxy to denominations that have been eliminated. The Nazarenes seem to have had the strongest claims. Again, the Donatists were, if anything, ultra-orthodox by the standards of the early Church. After them come the various sects that were universally accepted as "orthodox" except for beliefs or practices that, though now condemned, are known to have been shared by early Christians. The sole distinguishing feature of the Quartodecimans was that they continued to calculate the date of Easter in the traditional way. The heresy of the Montanists was that they continued to accept the inspiration of the Holy Spirit after the "orthodox" had changed their views about it. The Marcionites" principal heresy was to regard God as a God of love rather than as a God of fear. Other groups were regarded as heretical because they paid salaries to their clergy — as late as AD 200 the orthodox in Rome and elsewhere regarded this practice as outrageous. The "heresy" of the Millenarians was to agree with biblical views about the end of the world, while the Collyridians" principal heresy was to worship the Virgin Mary as Queen of Heaven long before other mainstream Christians accepted it as orthodox to do so. The Antidicomarianites on the other hand continued to hold traditional views about Mary after others had abandoned them. They held, for example, that Mary had had a normal marital relationship with Joseph after the birth of Jesus.

    The Roman Church developed its own ideas of heresy, often falling into heresy itself by its own earlier standards. For example, it had undoubtedly been heretical to attempt to enforce clerical celibacy before popes tried to enforce it on their own priests. In the Middle Ages the Spiritual Franciscans fell into heresy according to the Roman Church by preaching absolute poverty, copying the example of Jesus as closely as they could. Members of many sects were persecuted as heretics for adhering to the Ten Commandments. Because of the injunction "Thou shalt not kill", some sects opposed capital punishment, and for this belief they were often executed as heretics by the Christian authorities*.

    Of the surviving denominations, none has a clear claim to orthodoxy that anyone else considers convincing. If we take as a criterion the extent to which denominations have departed least from biblical teachings (or that least contradict biblical teachings), then we can discount all of the largest denominations, and must look to sects out of the mainstream. There are a few tiny sects that continue to honour the Sabbath rather than Sunday, practise poverty as well as preach it, avoid man-made images of any living thing, refuse to kill, and decline to swear oaths. If anyone has a claim to orthodoxy it seems to be minority groups like these.

    The idea that there is a single straight trunk to the great tree of Christianity is untenable. All present day denominations represent branches, whether young or old, large or small. Generally, it is not difficult to trace back today's offshoots through the older branches from which they grew. To take a simple example, Southern Baptists are an offshoot of the original Baptists, who developed from the Anabaptists, a group of nonconformist Protestant sects that had split off from the Roman Catholics. The Roman Catholic Church itself may be seen as a branch of the Orthodox Church, itself the successor of the Melkites, one of the many outgrowths that vied with each other during the Dark Ages, after the Pauline Christians had pruned back other boughs of the Christian tangle-tree.

    It has been remarked that the success or failure of the various early Christian sects was determined not so much by comparative reasonableness or skill in argument (for they practically never converted each other), but by the differences in birth and death rates in the respective populations. Whether or not this is true, it is clear that what we call "orthodox" is not objectively orthodox, it is "orthodox" only by convention.

    That famous fifth century definition of the one true Christian faith as that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all would be convincing if there were such a faith, but there is not, and apparently never has been. The definition was first formulated by an orthodox Roman Catholic monk attacking the novelties of St Augustine — novelties that have now become the pinnacle of orthodoxy in the West. The simple truth is that orthodox belief changes from place to place, from time to time, and from denomination to denomination.

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    Beyond Belief: Two Thousand (2000) Years of Bad Faith in the Christian Church



    1. Vincent of Lérins, Commonitorium, 2.5. "In ipsa item catholica ecclesia magnopere Curandum est, ut id teneamus, quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est". Vincent (died before 450), was a monk of Lérins in southern Gaul, who opposed Augustine's then novel doctrine of Original Sin.

    § Anglicans concede that by calling themselves catholic they mean that they are part of the one true Church, although it is not clear where the rest of this Church is. They regard the Roman Church as having strayed far from the true way. During the Reformation the Church in England considered joining the Eastern Churches, but eventually decided against.

    § Constantine was later baptised into the Christian Church, but only on his deathbed..

    § A Nestorian monk from Peking, Rabban Sauma, visited Europe in 1288, apparently without anyone realising that by Western standards he was a heretic. At Bordeaux he gave Communion to King Edward I of England. At Rome he discussed theology with Pope Nicholas IV and celebrated Mass before the cardinals. A few years later a Franciscan, John of Monte Corvino, visited the Khan of Cambaluc (Emperor of Peking) and tried to introduce Western Christianity there, without success.

    § Nestorians were called Assyrian Christians by Anglican missionaries who thought (mistakenly) that they were descended from the ancient Assyrians

    § Among these groups are the Maronite and Syrian Churches from the Patriarchy of Antioch, the Copts and Ethiopians from the Patriarchy of Alexandria, and the Ukrainian Uniate Church originally from the Orthodox Patriarchy of Constantinople. A small percentage of Armenian Christians (who never got involved in the Monophysite troubles) are also in communion with Rome.


    §. In addition to the Pharisees, Sadducees, Samaritans and Essenes, Hegesippus mentions other hostile Jewish groups as Galilæans, Hemerobaptists (who practised daily re-baptism), and Masbothæans (materialists). Eusebius, The History of the Church, 4:22.

    §. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 4:22 , quoting Hegesippus. Some of these groups are mentioned both as Jewish and Jewish Christian.

    §. Paul complains about sexual licence among his followers in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20.

    §. Eusebius, The History of the Church, 5:23.

    §. One reason why the filioque (the phrase “and the Son”) was so controversial was that it appeared to Orthodox Christians to confirm the Roman Church's heresy. If not fully Sabellian, then the Western position was, as one Saint put it, "some semi-Sabellian monster". See Ware, The Orthodox Church, p 221.

    §. Eusebius ascribed the heresy to one Artemon who had lived around the same time as Irenaeus of Lyons, although he notes that the holders of Artemon's views claimed that they had been handed down from the apostles. Eusebius, The History of the Church, 5:28.

    §. The terms of Constantine's restrictions are preserved in Eusebius's Life of Constantine, 2, pp 64-5. The full English text may be found in the Library of the Nicene Fathers, vol. 1.

    §. It is difficult to summarise accurately the views of Arius and his followers. For a good unbiased exposition see Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, pp 226-231.

    . Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Penguin, p 400.

    §. Jerome was not sympathetic to the Arian line "The whole world groaned and marvelled to find itself Arian" contra Lucifer 19.

    §. Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Penguin, p 402.

    §. John Hick (ed.), The Myth of God Incarnate, SCM Press (1977), p 142. The passage is from Don Cupitt's "The Christ of Christendom". The Rev. Cupitt provides a footnote at the end of the first sentence: "Klauser, A Short History of the Western Liturgy, Oxford University Press 1969, pp 30ff and notes. See especially A. Jungmann, The Place of Christ in Liturgical Prayer, Chapman 1965".

    §. Such ideas were regarded as heretical by the early Church leaders, who knew of goddesses like Astarte who were regarded as queens of Heaven, and who had cakes made for them (e.g. Jeremiah 7:18). See Ashe, The Virgin, pp 150-1. Roman Catholics now worship Mary and regard her as Queen of Heaven, but this was a late development — a sort of belated vindication of the Collyridian "heresy"

    . §. John Hick (ed.), The Myth of God Incarnate, SCM Press (1977). Frances Young, "a Cloud of Witnesses", p 28.

    §. The Roman Church holds that the civil power has a God-given right to execute certain wrongdoers. It has been held to be heretical to deny this. For example in the Profession of Faith drawn up by Pope Innocent III in 1208, Waldensians were required to profess their belief in the right of the state to inflict capital punishment. Failure to do so constituted proof of heresy.


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