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Thursday, 31 May 2018

From Hebraic roots to Greek philosophy! (Part 4)

And it's back into our Tardis for the fourth, and final, instalment of this brief look at the way in which the early church moved from its Hebraic roots, and mind-set, and adopted a Hellenistic mind-set instead. We’ve already looked in on the first Church Council, in Jerusalem – that historic Council that paved the way for Gentiles (most of my readers, and me) to become a party of the Body of the Christ. This time we are visiting a place named Nicaea, in Turkey, in 325 AD. We are in the Imperial Palace – which is probably the nearest we could find to a modern Conference Centre (but without the free wi-fi connection!).

Some 300 bishops (about 16% of those invited) are present – but only five of them are from the western church. There is no-one at all of Jewish descent – quite a change from that first Council in Jerusalem! Delegates seated in a semi-circle facing a raised dais. One man stands in the centre, behind a wooden lectern. To his left, is seated the Patriarch Alexander of Alexandria – chairman of the conference. Seated to his right is the Emperor Constantine, who had called the conference. Constantine – of whom it has been well said that “The ‘conversion’ of Constantine was the beginning of the end for the church.”

So, who was Constantine? He was a military emperor who worshipped the sun god, and relied on this deity for military success. The relevant moment in his life, as far as the church is concerned, was the Battle of Milvian Bridge, over the river Tiber, in October, AD 312, against the army of Maxentius. The story is that he had a vision of a cross – already established as the symbol of Christianity – in front of the sun, with the words: “In hoc signo vinces” – “In this sign, conquer”. The record is, it must be acknowledged, rather vague, but Constantine was, indeed, victorious in spite of having a smaller army than his rival and opponent. This battle left Constantine the undisputed Emperor of Rome – and Christianity, after years of persecution under Diocletian, the official religion of the Empire.

I am not going to bore you with the minutiae of the doctrinal decisions of the Council. However, there was one issue in which Constantine was not content to be a passive observer. This concerned the timing of the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus. There was, already, a growing animosity towards Jews, and moves to strip away all connection between the Crucifixion/Resurrection and the Jewish Passover which was the time when of those events had taken place. Constantine now read out a letter which he, as Emperor, was going to circulate throughout Christendom. The letter, were it to be sent today, would be considered, rightly, to be highly anti-Semitic. Here are just a couple of phrases to provide a flavour: “And truly, in the first place, it seemed … a most unworthy thing that we should follow the custom of the Jews in the celebration of this most holy solemnity who, polluted wretches, having stained their hands with a nefarious crime, are justly blinded in their minds … … … Let us then have nothing in common with the most hostile rabble of the Jews.” That sounds like something straight from the annual conference of the contemporary British Labour Party!!

So the Council – the first great Council of the Christian Church – validates a policy that is going to result in the persecution, and even attempted genocide, of the Jewish people for many centuries. It’s the start of a long slide away from the Jewish roots of the faith; and later Councils simply “put the boot in” again and again. Some 20 years later the Council of Antioch threatened excommunication for any Christian who celebrated Passover with the Jews. Twenty years after that, the Council of Laodicea extended that threat to all Jewish festivals, and to the weekly Shabbat. The Jewish roots of the Christian faith had been well and truly sliced away, and left rotting in the ground. Christianity had morphed into a Greek philosophical discipline – and it has been so ever since.

And what has been the practical outcome of all of this? It is that Greek philosophical ideas became the key to understanding the fundamental doctrines/teachings of the Church – the Body of the Lord Jesus, the Christ (Yeshua, HaMashiach). No criticism or regret – just unthinking (and blind!) acceptance; as if the pagan pollution of faith in Yeshua was somehow unavoidable; as if the Bible alone was insufficient for our understanding of Almighty God, and His dealings with mankind! So soon after the 500th anniversary year of the beginning of the Reformation, we do well to be reminded that the first of the five great “Solas” is “Sola Scriptura” – Scripture alone! (the others are Sola Fide - faith alone; Sola Gratis - grace alone; Solus Christus - Christ alone; Soli Deo Gloria - to the glory of God alone).

Plato’s dichotomy of body and soul – Soul = good; Body = bad – has effected how we see ourselves in God’s eyes.  So, if the body is bad, then anything connected with the body is also bad – particularly sex! So, those who followed “spiritual” careers are expected to be celibate – regardless of the fact that this is nowhere demanded in Scripture (although Paul does appear to have commended it!). This practice continues in Church of Rome – and, it could be argued, is the basic reason why that denomination has had to pay out a great deal of cash in compensation claims! Of course, sex outside marriage is, for the disciple of Jesus, a definite no-no! As, indeed, is the remarriage of divorcees whose spouse is still alive!

I'm not going to go into the whole business of the religious hierarchy that arose in spite of I Peter 2:4,9; etc. This was, in effect, a copy of Greek civil order. And then of course, there were the buildings – the first of which wasn’t even built until the 4th century at the instigation of (would you believe it?!) Constantine. Previously, the church – i.e. the people of God – had met in homes, as many once again do! But now, Christians were enticed out of their homes and, instead of being the church, they went to church! I have always loved the sign outside a particular church building in the city of Edinburgh. It reads, (if memory serves me well): "The home of Bellevue Baptist Church". Not the church, but the building in which the church - men and women and young people and children - meet! 

What I now hope to do is to share, from time to time, some well-known passages of the Tanakh - but look at them, as well as I can, through Jewish eyes; from a Hebraic mind-set. Do join with me as I do so. Your company will be most welcome.

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