Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Meet Irenaeus and Athanasius

Irenaeus (130 A.D. – 202 A.D.)

Bishop of Lyons, France and early church father during the persecutions of Marcus Aurelius in the second century, Irenaeus became the principle architect of the four gospel canon of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Just as the prophet Ezekiel had envisioned God’s throne borne up by four living creatures, he boldly declared, “It is not possible that there can be either more or fewer than four”. What made the four gospels trustworthy, he claimed, is that their authors actually witnessed the events they related. Few New Testament scholars would agree with that claim, but Irenaeus compelled his followers to accept it.

The problem was, there were other sects of Christianity all over the Middle East and into Africa in those days, many who had different beliefs. Even members of his own flock were splintered into various groups, often quarreling, all of them claiming to be inspired by the Holy Spirit. How could he sort out all the conflicting claims and impose some kind of order? He began by ridiculing those who claimed to be investigating “the deeper things of God” and seeking revelation on their own. He undertook his massive, five-volume On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis, vowing to track down all illegitimate writings which “have no truth, but are full of blasphemy” 

Yet Irenaeus recognized that even banishing heretical writings could not safeguard the Christian movement. What if someone read the right gospels the wrong way? What if well-meaning Christians could “cast truth aside” by spawning new heresies? This was happening even in his own congregation. So Irenaeus set out to construct even stricter guidelines for believers. It became heresy for anyone to assume they could discover truth about God by exploring their own experience. Christians had to accept his interpretation of the gospels as the only correct interpretation. Any who did would be called an “Orthodox” Christian – that is, one who thinks straight. He encountered resistance from those who said they had confessed the correct faith when they were baptized, but were following Jesus’ injunction to seek and find truth by which they could attain spiritual maturity. Irenaeus was appalled at such practice. Truth could only be attained by invoking the authority of the apostles from whom it was directly handed down. It therefore became a necessary requirement to obey the priests who followed in that line of succession. Irenaeus's instructions about which revelations to destroy and which ones to keep - and how to interpret them - became the basis for the formation of the New Testament. 

Athanasius (293 A.D. – 373 A.D.)

By the beginning of the 4th century Christianity had been declared a lawful religion and was tolerated throughout the Roman Empire. But within the Church, doctrine continued to be so unsettled, with bishop fighting against bishop, and believer fighting against believer, that the death toll actually exceeded that suffered during the persecutions. Word of the continuing dispute made its way to the newly converted Emperor Constantine the Great. "Division in the church," he told the bishops, "is worse than war." To settle the matter he convened The First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. Bishops and church leaders were invited to fix an official party line, and to declare an edict that all "Christians" must believe. They argued, fought, and eventually fleshed out a document of “correct belief” known as the Nicene Creed. Henceforth it became "unlawful for any man to bring forward, or to compose a different faith as a rival to that established by the Holy Fathers of the Church who assembled with the Holy Ghost in Nic├Ža." 

Among those assembled Holy Fathers was a short, dark-skinned Egyptian named Athanasius. Bishop of Alexandria for 46 years, he was a devout believer in a unified Christian orthodoxy, and a Church appointed “canonical” bible.The Church, by this time, had reached an informal consensus about which books would be included in the New Testament, but he was the first to officially declare them. That declaration appeared in his 39th Festal Letter written in the year 367 AD. “Since, however, we have spoken of the heretics as dead, but of ourselves as possessors of the divine writings unto salvation, I hearby set forth those writings that have been put in the canon and confirmed as divine, in order that everyone who has been led astray may condemn his seducers, and that everyone who has remained stainless may rejoice. In these 27 writings alone is the doctrine of piety proclaimed. Let no man add anything to them or take anything away from them”.
A champion of orthodoxy, Athanasius had helped lay the foundation of Church doctrine for millenniums to come. John Henry Newman described him as a "principal instrument, after the Apostles, by which the sacred truths of Christianity have been conveyed and secured to the world." Although he had many theological enemies, Athanasius had spent his life defending the Church against the onslaught of heretical teaching. In the end his enemies’ works were removed, condemned as heretical, and excluded from any ecclesiastical use.

In 381 Christianity was made the official state religion of the Roman Empire which insured its protection from further apostasy. 

Thursday, September 8, 2011

I Wonder Who Wrote The Word Of God?

I’ve been doing a lot of studying about early church history lately, trying to find out who decided what books would be in the Bible - a worthy undertaking I thought - after all, it is the Word of God. It has the final answer to questions about life, death, salvation, heaven, and hell. But who knew? All my life I’ve been told it was the Holy Spirit working through men. That always seemed a little too simplistic for me - and a little too convenient for the Church. Not only did it confer unquestioning authorship on God it also helped shroud the identity of the men who interpreted him for us. I wouldn’t mind, I have nothing against the Bible except the Church's tendency to take it literally, but the Holy Spirit apparently told them what things shouldn’t be in the Bible too - and that included the Gnostic Gospels. As a result a lot of insightful books about Jesus were forbidden, burned and successfully kept from public knowledge until the 20th century! Until 1946 in fact! A mere 65 years ago! Why? What was so threatening that they had to keep it from us? But that’s another question. A very important one, but right now I want to talk about who “they” were. Led by the Holy Spirit or not, it was men like you and me who made those decisions. It seems reasonable to want to know - who were these men who wrote the Word of God?

Before I start I need to clear something up. I’m a man who came to Jesus with a truly repentant heart and a desire to know God. I know without a doubt that he called me and that his Holy Spirit is in me - the Spirit that Jesus said would guide me into all truth. Lately I’ve been guided to a new understanding of scripture which the church says is not the right understanding. I’m supposed to believe someone else's understanding - someone who was guided by the Holy Spirit. Is the reason for my question becoming clear? I don't intend to blame anyone or find fault with what they believe - just to remind us that they were simply men doing what we can all do - listen to, and hear from God.  What they heard was what God needed them to know. What he revealed about himself was what they could understand. I have no doubt they were hearing from God. What isn’t clear is why they insist it was something for all people, for all time. If the Holy Spirit was sent to lead us, then he must still be leading us, and God must be revealing himself in ways we never could have known before. Maybe that’s why the Gospel of Thomas was hidden for so long. It's only now that science is able to show us what it means. There is great wisdom and truth in that Gospel for anyone who cares to look - things that align perfectly with what we’re learning about the reality of life and the nature of the universe we live in. The more I learn the more I realize I really am being "guided". And I believe it is toward the truth. The church may say the devil is doing it but that's impossible. The devil can't be where the spirit of God is. If the spirit of God is everywhere.......? But that too is a topic for another discussion.

What I'm going to do next time is name some names - not to discredit them - just to put faces on them so we recognize them as flawed men like all the rest of us trying to hear from God. It's time we knew these people from the early church who decided what The Word was - and what it wasn’t.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

“There’s Only One Of Us.”

Neale Donald Walsch said that and he’s right. Science is showing us that what we think of as “you” and “me” are really just parts of a whole - momentary flashes in a unified energy field blinking in and out like fireflies on a summer evening. This newly discovered oneness with the universe may seem somewhat impersonal and not all that comforting for someone who is fully vested in the illusion of their personality, but our personalities are not reality. In fact they separate us from reality. Thankfully we can (and do) discard them whenever we’re ready. But how did we get so caught up in the illusion of separation in the first place?

Long ago in the history of life on earth there was no awareness of “I am”. The first kinds of life were not able to distinguish in a clear way the “out there” experience from the “in here” experience. Somewhere on some dim, distant morning in time the first creature looked up at the sky and it occurred to him that he wasn’t that. He looked at the ground and the grass and he wasn’t that either. He was the thing that was looking at those things. He was different from them. He was different from everything he could see. He was himself. This was a momentous occasion in the evolution of life on our planet. Freud called it the development of the Ego. The bible calls it the Fall of Man. Both are right about one thing. It is a false reality. It hides our true nature and separates us from one another - and from God. 

As a young boy I wondered what would happen if somehow the cells in my arm decided they wanted to be independent and do their own thing. I figured my body wouldn’t function properly and my arm would turn blue. I would probably get sick. I figured that’s what happens when cancer cells develop - when the body no longer operates the way it was intended to. Thankfully, although we can get sick, the cells of our bodies usually don’t develop a consciousness that aspires to individuality. And so our bodies function according to their intended purpose. But it’s easy to look around and see what our belief in separation has done to the world. It has inspired and encouraged deceitful competition in all walks of life that no longer knows any moral restraint. It has bred division along racial, religious, and geopolitical lines which has caused jealousy, hatred, and war, and brought us to the edge of extinction. Jesus knew it was in the heart of man. But he also knew the oneness of our true nature - like him, part of that which created us. That’s why he told us to love our brother as ourselves. But it's up to us as a people to come to that awareness. No one is going to come down from heaven and rescue us. Our desire to maintain and defend our separateness from each other must be understood for what it is and what it has done to us.

We may have distanced ourselves from reality and gone astray as in a far country, but I see signs everywhere of people coming to their senses. Just like the prodigal son we are becoming dissatisfied with what the world offers and are looking for the way home. The good news is the father is waiting. He doesn’t care how long it’s been, where we were, why we left or what we’ve done. Because no matter who we think we are, the real reality is we’ve never been apart from him. We can’t be. There is only one of us.