The Cracks begin to Emerge – Stuart Johnson

Theology in reconWith the period of the Nicene era there was an emphasis on knowing God by obedience to God’s own self-revelation in the Person and work of Jesus Christ.  Towards the end of this period and into the early medieval period thought patterns foreign to the gospel began to gain a foothold in Patristic theology.  It might surprise some that one of the fundamental heresies of Arianism was the belief that God must be held at an infinite distance from humanity.  They implied that human beings could not tolerate the absolute presence of God.  As a result, they asserted Jesus was created as an intermediary between God and the world (Athanasius, De Decretis 7ff).  He was not quite god and He was not quite a creature.  The Bishops began to cover their ears in disgust at what Arius argued at the Nicene Council in 325AD (Athanasius, Ad Episcopos, 13).  Athanasius even declared that people who held such beliefs could no longer call themselves Christian.  The universal church resisted such errors for many centuries but in time, the foundations of Gentile thought began to infiltrate the mainstream church and cracks began to emerge.  Even today, the belief human beings cannot tolerate the absolute presence of God and must be held at an infinite distance from Him is at the heart of many Evangelical statements of belief.

The firm position of the universal church had no premise prior to the knowledge of God disclosed in the Person and work of Jesus Christ.  Without Jesus Christ, God is utterly unknowable.  Apart from Jesus Christ, there is no one else who can mediate the knowledge of God to us.  As the church had severed itself from her Jewish origins and planted itself in the Gentile world, the christological framework the Patristic church fought so hard to preserve was slowly being eroded away.  The Light of God that was understood to have radiated from Jesus Christ in precisely the same manner as the Father began to fade.  Outside ideas made inroads into Patristic theology, began to take shape and were made to appear scriptural.  Torrance points to Augustine’s separation of the intelligible realm and the sensible realm having a devastating impact that was to last for centuries.  This led to a chopping up of theology into sacred/secular, spiritual/worldly, visible/invisible and many more.  The stress of the Gentile definitions of God into omnipotent, omnipresence, omniscience and holiness was based on their premise of sin defined as separation from God.  The fixed premises of the Gentile world covered the foundation of rock with sand.  The stage was set for the rise of the Roman Catholic Church.

To put it simply, the church was beginning to structure itself and its frames of thought on non-Christocentric foundations.  It started to conform itself to the ways of the world rather than transform the ways of Gentile culture and thought by renewing their mind to Christ.  The nature of God took on some of the Gentile/Roman features of god who, unlike God presented to us in the Person and work of Jesus Christ, interaction with the world was thought to be impossible.  As we journeyed through history, the concept of union which was the hallmark of Patristic theology gave way to theologies based on separation.  The power base shifted from the covenantal, They will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, to knowing God according to the Roman Canon law and to their own ecclesiastical understanding of the Scriptures. In time the contrast between the Nicene tradition and the Roman Catholic church became as black is to white.  Nevertheless it must be acknowledged the remarkable missionary achievements of the Roman Catholic Church.  It spread throughout the Western World impacting on people, culture and their whole way of life.  Rather than bring the true nature of the ancient church into the life and culture of Europe that had its ties to Jewish heritage, it adopted the Gentile/Pagan structure of law, organisation and administration.  The dualisms that were the hallmark of the Gentile/Pagan world became the hallmarks of the way the Roman Catholic Church saw itself, how it viewed the Person and work of Jesus Christ and how it engaged with the wider community.  The Roman Church transformed itself into an institution that was prone to corruption and abuse of its powers.

One of the main areas of contention between the Eastern and the Western church was the Filioque controversy.  It was here we find the Roman Catholic Church acted in an arbitrary way.  They inserted this clause into the Nicene Creed based on its belief in its own supreme ecumenical power of the papacy.  Because they failed to bring together a genuine universal council in the same manner as the Nicene, Constantinople and Chalcedon councils, the decision to include this clause into the Creed was deemed illegal by the East.  It was handled in a way that ignored the authority of Jesus Christ and the Scriptures.  The Roman Catholic Church employed political coercions to sway the church of the East to conform.  In addition, the catholic church that was built on the essentials of the Apostolic foundation gave way to the Latin structures of belief that were foreign to the tradition.  The East rejected any attempts by the Roman institution to amalgamate into one community simply because the West had abandoned the ancient tradition.

As the centuries rolled away, any attempts made by people to reform the Roman Catholic Church was doomed to fail.  Its hierarchical structures, juridical structures, canon law, and papal supremacy where the gnostic ideal towards elitism and exclusivism encircled the church and prevented any attempts to bring it back to its Christological roots.  It cut  off the rope that anchored itself to the the context of its orientation in the Person and work of Jesus Christ.  So entrenched the Roman Church was in its own Augustinian and Thomistic worldview that it was unable to break free and return to her roots.  This brought about a widening gap between the laity and the clergy.

In the Reformation, we find there were attempts by the Protestant movement to break away from the institutional and power structures of the Church of Rome.  By going around the Church of Rome to the ancient catholic church and her writings, they had hoped they could create an alternative universal and ecumenical church.  However, in a very short period of time, the very problems that plagued the Church of Rome began to emerge in the Protestant movement.  The inherent dualisms were soon implemented into Protestant mission statements and confessions.  As a result, the revival of the ancient church truths in the reformation period quickly faded into insignificance in favour of the very same god that is far removed than the one who presented Himself in the Person and work of Jesus Christ.  This placed further wedges not only between the Roman Catholic and the Protestant churches but also between churches within the Protestant movement in any endeavour towards a universally united and ecumenical church.