Sunday, January 24, 2010

Remembering History: Theodosius I and the Nicene Creed

Above: the diademed Theodosius I, looking more lugubrious than saintly

He was the last Emperor to rule both the Eastern and Western Empires. He recruited huge numbers of barbarians to fight in the dwindling legions of Rome, as the newly ascendant Christians showed little interest in defending the Empire.  The influx of barbarians would ultimately prove to be a big mistake when one of Theodosius' former  foederati barbarian leaders, Alaric, King of the Visigoths (an Arian Christian) would invade Italy during the reign of Theodosius' son Arcadius, Western Emperor, in one case taking advantage of the feast of Easter, knowing the Christians would be preoccupied with religion.

When Christians were establishing themselves as a religion they cried for tolerance. Once they were in the position as the establishment's official religion they banned or made it very difficult for all others to practice their faiths, especially other Christians who were skeptical of this new first dogma of the church, the Nicene Creed (Symbolum Nicaenum), and of course, Jews, who were deemed full of impious "madness". And let us not forget also all those insane conservative pagans who were still banging around at the time. Flavius Theodosius ( 11 January 347 – 17 January 395) known as Theodosius I decreed  Nicene Catholic Christianity the official and only state religion in 380. After initially mollifying influential pagans with his tolerance, once he was comfortably in power he issued strict proscriptions against them, such as a penalty of death both  for making sacrifice to the old gods in 381 and the practice of the haruspex  (the ancient Roman art of foretelling the future by the reading of entrails) in 384. The ancient religion of the state that unified and, for centuries pacified the ancient lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea was officially and finally denied by the enervated successors of what was left of the Romans.

The Nicene Creed was first agreed to by a majority of bishops at the first ecumenical council in 325 at Nicaea, hence the name, and finally hammered out as dogma in 381 at Constantinople. The Catholic and the Orthodox churches (as well as Anglican and Lutheran) to this day adhere to the Creed in more or less the same form, including it in their liturgies.  It is an interesting question whether Jesus would recognize this legal statement of Faith as any kind of representation of himself or his goals. The Catholic Church developed a shorter and vaguer Reader's Digest style version of the  Creed deceptively known as as the "Apostles' Creed" or Symbolum Apostolorum, used in some liturgical and non liturgical settings by most Christian denominations today. It appeared around 390 even though all the apostles were some three hundred years dead when it was written. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains the matter in this way:

The Apostles' Creed is so called because it is rightly considered to be a faithful summary of the apostles' faith. It is the ancient baptismal symbol of the Church of Rome. Its great authority arises from this fact: it is "the Creed of the Roman Church, the See of Peter the first of the apostles, to which he brought the common faith".

In other words: the Creed is true because we say so.  The Church has also promulgated a mythology that the Apostles each received a part of the Creed at Pentecost from the Holy Spirit which was handed down in the church as an oral tradition (the church has had an oral tradition ever since, yuk yuk I'll be here all week).

Here is the Catholic Version of the Apostles' Creed:
1. I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
2. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
3. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.
4. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
5. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again.
6. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
7. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
8. I believe in the Holy Spirit,
9. the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints,
10. the forgiveness of sins,
11. the resurrection of the body,
12. and life everlasting.

The Nicene Creed did not end the confusion of discordant ideas on the Trinity (a notion first promulgated by Tertullian early in the third century) and Christianity itself. There are plenty of pin spinning angels to be counted in it. To this day the Eastern Church and the Western Church can't agree if the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son both, or either. The Creed doesn't say. Don't ask me which side professes what. It makes my head spin.  The Trinity is a very complicated theology, based on vague biblical allusions cobbled together to support a politically ascendant church looking to justify its grasp on power and enforce unity among the faithful by squelching independent thought. Mergers of  Church and State, no matter how well meaning, are an Evil mix harming both or either party. Here is the 1975 ecumenical text of the Creed.

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of Life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

What a curious document from a religion that boasts of its monotheism.
When I was a child I enjoyed the  scary bit in the Apostles' Creed  (being a horror movie fan) about "he descended into Hell" but in the legalistic  Nicene Creed we are told Jesus "suffered death".
Jesus  is now depicted lacking all dynamism,  as "sitting at the right hand of the Father" clearly his successor as President of the Universe performing the same function. This concept at once demeans both the Father and the Son.
There is (are?) the Father and the Son in a sort of tableau vivant (with the invisible Holy Ghost, as (S?)He used to be called, getting to flit around) posing passively for the heavenly choirs in a set piece of theological erotica.
And the Creator (Creatorem caeli et terrae) of the Apostles' Creed is termed the "Maker of Heaven and Earth".(which is an accurate translation of the  Latin: Factórem cæli et terræ,) in the Nicene Creed of 381.

"Creator" is a more magnificent title than the more workmanlike "Maker". The Father is not the architect here; he is a contractor.  They are depicting the Father as equivalent to such a one as the Egyptian god Ptah who was also called the "Maker". He shaped the forms, the worlds, often for the other gods.
They are definitely downplaying the Father. It looks like they are trying to glorify the Son at the expense of the Big Guy. Their Mistake!
At one time I think they may have said they  "await" the "resurrection of the dead" rather than the impatient  "look for the resurrection of the dead". Interesting...Here is the original Latin:
"Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum," Yes the verb expecto (originally exspecto, literally "look out" which is a much different thing than "look for") is usually translated "await"; the verb, quaerere (the Latin root word of our "Inquiry") would be "look for".

Quotes of the Day

Omne enim spectaculum sine concussione spiritus non est. 
There is no public entertainment which does not inflict spiritual damage. (Lit. All public entertainment is not without spiritual damage.)

 Certum est, quia impossibile - It is certain because it is impossible.

Qui fugiebat rursus [sibi] proeliabitur. - He who flees will fight again.

Nec ratio enim sine bonitate ratio est, nec bonitas sine ratione bonitas ...
Reason without goodness is not reason, and goodness without reason is not goodness.
- all from Tertullian (Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, ca. 160 – ca. 220 A.D.)

“Do not feed children on maudlin sentimentalism or dogmatic religion; give them nature”-Luther Burbank

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