Constantine's Last Supper -- Future of Faith #7

Transforming Theology Project
Harvey Cox, Future of Faith, Harper One, 2009

Chapter 7: Constantine’s Last Supper:
The Invention of Heresy

Events had been set in the preceding centuries that were the prelude to the triumph of hierarchy and creedalism in the church. Now, with Constantine’s embrace of Christianity – in principle if not in general practice – the possibility of enforcing belief became possible. Before this, the church could use only excommunication, but state support and patronage would give power and authority to the church that it had never before experienced. The church, which had contained within its membership few among the elite, now became exceedingly popular. The elite quickly joined the religious community in great numbers that was patronized by the emperor.

An important and intriguing component of the chapter is Cox’s discussion of the cross and how it became the primary symbol of the church. He suggests that prior to Constantine’s “conversion,”this had not been true (I need to do more research on the emergence of the cross as a primary symbol – the fish was one earlier on). But now, what had once been a symbol of the execution of subversives now became the imperial symbol of conquest and power.

Whatever the motives that Constantine may have had in recognizing and patronizing this growing religious movement, which likely still was a minority faith, the church’s response was mutual admiration. It seems to have welcomed the new imperial affirmation with open arms. From a Roman perspective, of course, religion was supposed to create social cohesion – but you needed uniformity if you were going to get cohesion. Thus, a Council was held in 325 at Nicea – the Imperial Palace on the Turkish Coast. Constantine recognized that something needed to change if Christianity was to be a social and political unifier. First up was the debate between Arius and Athanasius. Both offered theological alternatives on the question of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ, and at Nicea it appears that Athanasius won, even though Arius had considerable support among the bishops gathered. But, due to the political importance of the debate, only one side could come out on top, and Constantine backed the Homoousius party. This Greek word signifies that the Father and the Son share the same substance. Of course, history shows that Nicea didn’t resolve the problem, for Council after Council was called to resolve this and that issue. But the key here is that whatever was decided now had imperial backing – and thus heresy became a crime.

The response to this eventuality is quite negative. The author notes that “the history of Christianity during the decades after Constantine makes for dreary reading” (p. 107). There is some truth to this because there was much political intrigue in the process. And history shows that the church tried time and again through council and excommunication to resolve all manner of questions – but the rancor continued. This leads Cox to suggest that maybe this is a sign of mental illness – if “mental illness can be defined as doggedly repeating the same tactic over and over again even when it has always failed.” Thus creeds are a “symptom of a long psychological disorder” (p. 108).

Those groups and movements that didn’t submit were deemed heretical and worthy of persecution. Cox notes his favorite heretical group is the Waldensians, a movement that affirmed the sole authority of Scripture, rejected papal authority, and rejected other doctrines such as purgatory. This was also a lay led movement. But, unlike the similar Franciscan movement, its unwillingness to submit to the Pope made it subversive – and thus they fled to the mountains and lived there until the 19th century when they finally were able to venture out under a newly tolerant Italian state. Of course, there’s also the issue of the filioque, which still divides East and West.

In the mind of Harvey Cox, creedal conformity and doctrinal correctness are signs of the Age of Belief, which is a time of distortion. But maybe that age is coming to an end. Indeed, there are signs of change brewing – such as John Paul II’s visit with the Waldensians. Could it be that the that the first manifestations of the Age of the Spirit might just be stirring?


Anonymous said…
I see that Cox and Roman Catholics both like to play the mental illness card. Concerning the Roman Catholic use, I saw this written once in an article as their explanation for Martin Luther's new theological insight and the resulting Reformation. With the stigma that mental illness carries, it's used as a powerful tool to drown something or someone.

From my perspective, the Creeds set theological boundaries and boundaries are about what you will and will not accept unlike rules which attempt to change others.

I would guess that the Fundamentalist, non-KJV Bible burning church is non-creedal, but that does not make them any different from those who persecuted heretics or perceived heretics.
Anonymous said…
Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Albert Einstein

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.
Albert Einstein

The attempt to combine wisdom and power has only rarely been successful and then only for a short while.
Albert Einstein

The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.
Albert Einstein

Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former.
Albert Einstein

In order to be an immaculate member of a flock of sheep, one must above all be a sheep oneself.
Albert Einstein

If the facts don't fit the theory, change the facts.
Albert Einstein

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